State of the Cities in 2011: What Are Mayors Saying About Economic Development?

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This is the fourth in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2011 State of the City speeches.

In various “State of the City” addresses, local leaders stressed that the best way to improve their city’s economic position is to increase investment within the city, which they admit is no easy task.  Whether it’s through promoting second stage businesses, attracting new businesses to fill vacant storefronts or educating and training the city’s workforce, one common theme is that city leaders are proactively seeking and growing investment and reevaluating economic development strategies to improve their cities’ economic condition.

Take Lansing, Mich., for example.  In a state where the unemployment rate is around 11 percent, 2 percent above the national average, and where cities such as Detroit are hovering around 19 percent, Lansing is in comparatively good shape.  Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in 22 months and is the second lowest unemployment rate in the state, and 2010 was the first year the region saw positive job growth in manufacturing in 15 years.  And while much of this improvement has to do with the “rebirth” of General Motors, Mayor Bernero attributes a majority of the city’s recent successes to the use of specific economic tools such as competitive incentives, corridor development and infrastructure investments.  He stresses that these initiatives are what have attracted large and small businesses alike.

What’s more, Mayor Doyle of Beaverton, Ore. declared that “in these tough economic times… City Hall must do everything it can to support [the] local business community”.  The city literally cut its development code document in half to eliminate inefficiencies and simplify the permitting process, while maintaining safeguards from detrimental development.  In Boston, Mayor Menino described the city’s recent efforts to develop the South Boston Innovation district, a business district focused primarily on attracting and growing clean-tech and green businesses.  He recalls of the city’s efforts, “I said that our waterfront should not turn into ‘Anywhere USA.’  Instead, through creativity and some insistence, it’s becoming a model for the country for how to rebuild the economy around new and growing industries.”

Mayor Lane from Scottsdale, Ariz. even spoke of the recent creation of an advisory council comprised of business and community leaders that will help determine ways to make the city more attractive to CEOs and entrepreneurs.

Many cities are not only focusing on attracting and expanding businesses but also preparing the city’s workforce for future investment.  City leaders understand that one of the most important community characteristics for existing and potential businesses is an appropriately skilled workforce.  If the educational infrastructure does not meet the needs of the prospective business community, they will most certainly locate elsewhere.

Mayor Hudson of Greensville, Miss. spoke of a three-pronged approach: education, infrastructure and jobs.  These factors are interrelated, but if not made to work in conjunction, they can hinder economic advancement.  Mayor Hudson highlights the importance of this relationship, “our students today are the workforce of tomorrow.”

In addition to developing the skills of school-age students, cities like West Palm Beach, Fla. are also exploring ways to “facilitate a mutually beneficial nexus between the city’s business community and the institutions of higher education.”  Mayor Frankel believes the opportunities that are available at local universities can ultimately boost job growth by connecting with the needs of local employers.

True, many of these strategies are by no means “innovative.”  But what’s important is that these city leaders are talking about these tools in the context of their communities.  They seem to have taken the time to determine which economic tools are appropriate for their city – which tools will help local businesses expand, how to leverage key investments, like infrastructure, for economic development,  and what workforce skill sets are needed to meet the needs of tomorrow’s growth industries.  And when it comes down to it, simply being able to assess what your city has in order to develop a vision, mission and strategy is the first step in effective economic development and will lead to increased investment.

Read about this project in more detail in The State of the Cities in 2011 and the most recent installment on sustainability on Citiesspeak.  Don’t forget to check back throughout the month of March for more discussion on the State of the Cities in 2011. Next up on March 17th: a look deeper into local infrastructure developments.

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