The Latest in Economic Development – 12/19/11

This week’s blog entry focuses on different economic development strategies to return to growth, including repealing unnecessary regulations pertaining to “green” energy, workforce development strategies, and whether business-attracting subsidies are performing as intended. Have stories you think should be included?  Comment below or send to

Get last week’s blog here.

The idea of repealing regulations sometimes comes with a negative connotation, especially in the aftermath of the recent financial crisis. But on the micro level, burdensome regulations can be serious impediments to meaningful progress in aspects such as small business growth and sustainable energy development. One such area is the process of “greening” homes and buildings which, when adding in the cost of permitting and inspection, can be prohibitively expensive. To take advantage of renewable energy sources, stakeholders in Washington State and New York City have been active in streamlining permitting processes and adjusting zoning laws. (Crain’s New York) and ( via The Seattle Office of Economic Development Daily Digest)

Urban manufacturing is evolving. The global “container ship” economy has produced a plethora of low-cost consumer products, but they often lack differentiation. The result is that smaller American manufacturers, unable to compete with big box international companies, are turning to open source urban manufacturing focused on making local products for regional customers. It is fostering new relationships between urban manufacturing centers like San Francisco and old blue-collar cities like Allentown. (Fast Company)

Since the tech bubble burst in the early 2000’s, the term “jobless recovery” has haunted the U.S. economy. So while the economy has (slowly) rebounded GDP-wise, employment figures have failed to catch up. This provides evidence that the recent economic strife has been accompanied by more structural unemployment then in recessions past, leaving more people unemployed for longer periods of time. What does this mean for workforce development programs? According to the Hamilton Project at Brookings, training funds should be “directed to evidence-backed programs,” and training programs should “directly engage employer and industry partners.” Read the full report here: (Brookings Institution)

TOMS shoes and other social ventures have given rise to a growing sector of the economy combining for-profit business and non-profit giving.  Social entrepreneurs can add potential to cities by making positive impacts in the surrounding community. The Menkiti Group, a real estate company in Washington, D.C. dedicated to providing affordable housing and commercial properties in urban neighborhoods, is one such example. What then should public officials consider when deciding to support social innovation? has some ideas: (Governing)

States have continued to compete with one another by handing out lucrative economic development subsidies to corporations. But throwing unconditional money at any type of problem rarely works the way it ought to. Good Jobs First released a report that acknowledges that while there is no shortage of economic development funds being handed out, they often “require little if any job creation and lack wage and benefit standards.” Read the press release complete with state rankings here: (Good Jobs First)

Industry clusters are not the “silver bullet” once thought, but they can still provide positive economic activity in your region. Hal Johnson of the Upstate SC Alliance states “’if you build it, they will come’ only works in the movies,” and he has a point. But many aspects of industry clusters are born out of simple, common sense techniques – such as identifying what your region does well and taking full advantage of these opportunities to foster job growth and innovation. (Area Development)

Pedestrian Firenze

During most times of the day throughout the entire year, the narrow and often times cobble stone streets of Firenze (Florence), Italy are not so much roadways as they are large sidewalks.  Mayor Matteo Renzi is serious about protecting and preserving the historic character of his city – the cradle of the Renaissance.  During his tenure, he has taken steps to enforce laws adopted earlier which establish a Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZTL) or a traffic restricted zone in the city center.  He also has launched new efforts to move people more efficiently using innovative mobility strategies gathered from other places around the world.

At some intersections, a simple chain is strung across the road to mark the no-drive zone.  In other places, round metal bollards with a flashing light on top protrude from the pavement to mark the pedestrian zone.  These gentle and not-so-gentle markers help define one of Europe’s most livable and walkable cities.  On foot and at a leisurely pace, one can cover the distance from the Academia where the statue of David by Michelangelo stands, past the Uffizi Gallery and across the River Arno to the Pitti Palace with hardly a concern about a speeding automobile.

Of course the streets of central Firenze are planned for mixed use neighborhoods.  Small shops and restaurants occupy the first floors and above, on the remaining floors, are residences.  There is no such thing as a central business district or a peripheral residential district.  People live and work and recreate in an all-encompassing space that both serves residents and draws visitors.  Merchants carry on a thriving business despite the absence of cars and parking.  In fact, the festive atmosphere of the street undoubtedly improves sales.

Vehicles are permitted under particular rules and residents have special permits allowing them to get to and from their homes.  A taxi can generally move through the cordon at strategic points to allow them to ply their trade.  Exceptions are of course made for emergency vehicles and others providing a public service.  It’s all very manageable and desirable on so many levels.  One can experience the rich social contact and participate in the gentle art of strolling and being at one with a place.

Granted, Firenze is a destination city with rich historical and architectural advantages and a cultural character that cannot be replicated elsewhere.  It is simply a unique and timeless place.  However, the principles being applied to maintain these advantages, to capitalize on the benefits of place and to renew the face of a city for the present millennia can be studied, appreciated and carried elsewhere for the benefit of other cities.

Be Sustainable This Holiday Season!

The holiday season is an exciting time of the year- there’s just a lively energy around me and people have a little extra kick in their step.   This, along with the pretty lights, comfort foods, and extra time with family and friends always re-energizes me before the New Year.

Personally, I also find it most difficult to stay reflective during these times of the year- I’m constantly surrounded by people, gifts, and lots of STUFF that clutter my brain, and quickly I stop holding myself accountable for my actions.  The inner voice that usually says, “Wait a minute, do you need that? How do you plan to dispose of that?  How are my actions impacting others?,” conveniently shuts down that week after Thanksgiving when Christmas lights start going up.

I’m convinced that it doesn’t have to be this way.  I’m sure that if individuals work together, we can stay mindful of our actions while reaping all the benefits of this special season.  So this time around, I’ve identified six rather simple ways that city leaders and residents can continue to be “sustainable” during the holiday season.  Try them out and who knows? You may actually find that your city is forming annual traditions around some of them!

  1. Encourage residents to support local businesses by buying gifts and trees from local retailers
  2. Residents are always excited to view the city’s decorations- this year, set an example by purchasing LED lights for your city, which use roughly 1/10th as much energy as conventional lights and last much longer
  3. As an alternative to traditional holiday cards, utilize time, cost, and resource efficient e- greetings to send to staff members and residents
  4. ‘Tis the season of giving- identify local organizations where you and your constituents can donate time and/or money
  5. Suggest a White Elephant used gift exchange for your office holiday party, rather than a traditional Secret Santa— you’re likely to be entertained by folks fighting over something that’s been sitting in your house for years
  6. As the holidays wind down, remind residents of their waste and recycling options for Christmas trees, electronics, paper, and plastic (search for recycling centers near you)

Happy Holiday Everyone!

The Northeast Central Durham Livability Initiative Populates the Livability Discussion

Over the last couple years, the definition of livability created by the HUD-DOT-EPA’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities has become well known to those of us in the “city business.”  The Partnership’s website outlines the six principles of livability: value communities and neighborhoods; promote equitable, affordable housing; provide more transportation choices; support existing communities; coordinate and leverage federal policies and investment and enhance economic competitiveness.

The site describes what a livable community looks like.  When I close my eyes to picture it based on this description, I see multi-modal transportation systems and a variety of housing types.  I see tree-lined streets and open space.  What I don’t see in my mind’s eye are people in these spaces.  Where are the people?

Actually, they’re hard at work in cities like Durham, N.C., building livable communities from the bottom up, with support from the Partnership, of course.  The Northeast Central Durham (NECD) Livability Initiative is adding value to the livability discussion by placing citizens right where they belong—at the foundation of the community’s livability planning efforts.  In doing so, the initiative is using livability planning as a vehicle with which to establish a more engaged citizenry and a more inclusive community.

According to a presentation about the initiative, livability is all about the citizens, especially in a low-wealth, majority minority community like NECD that has suffered from disinvestment since it was dissected by urban renewal in the 1970s.  With livability planning, “We can restore the lost sense of commitment and belonging; we can counteract the phenomenon of alienation, isolation and loneliness and achieve a sense of identification and participation.”

The initiative has been assembling citizens, local leaders, federal and state agencies, non-profits and students since May 2010 to translate the six livability principles into five citizen-supported livability schemes that fill gaps in the community’s planning efforts.

The community’s citizens are its spokespeople, and according to Wanona Satcher, an urban designer and resident involved in the initiative, they are learning to speak the language needed to make positive changes in their community.  They know what questions to ask and have more knowledge of local opportunities that enable them to engage in hands on efforts to support economic and workforce development, environmental responsibility and a healthy community.

One of the initiative’s most successful accomplishments to date is the creation of the Bull City Urban Market.   The market, which provides the community with access to fresh, healthy and affordable food, also supports job creation, economic opportunity, walkability and community cohesiveness in NECD and throughout the city and county of Durham.

More info: The NECD Livability Initiative was highlighted as part of the NLC City Showcase at the Congress of Cities and Exposition last month in Phoenix.  Learn more about the initiative on CityLife, where the initiative was profiled in August 2011.  And join in the discussion about this and other efforts that support a culture of inclusiveness with the NLC-supported Partnership for Working Toward Inclusive Communities on Facebook.

The Latest in Economic Development – 12.12.11

Information germane to economic development can seemingly come from all angles. It is not always easy to filter out the information that is not pertinent to cities and city leaders. So every week, NLC will introduce articles related to economic development, placing special attention on interesting and ambitious city programs, identifying recent trends, and uncovering promising initiatives.

The aura of the tech start-up is undeniable. It all seems so easy – find a hoodie wearing college dropout with a big idea, give him or her office space, provide some seed capital, and watch the company grow into the next Groupon. This assumption has led to an oversupply of technology-based incubators, which, when reading between the lines, are not as successful as one may think. (Wall Street Journal)

If one were to think of “hip” cities with vibrant urban cultures, Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon are often the cream that rises to the top.  But Akron, Ohio, with help from the University Park Alliance, is setting out to transform an historic neighborhood that can be just as vibrant. A continuing work in progress, Akron is showing that for Rust Belt cities, there is life after recession. (Atlantic Cities)

It is a widely accepted notion that high quality education is an important cog in unlocking long-term economic growth – in towns, cities, states, and countries. How can cities take advantage of educational opportunities to foster organic economic growth? Small cities in Arizona are taking it upon themselves to revolutionize a new higher education model – one that is supported not by state governments, but by municipalities, tuition, and the general public. (Inside Higher Ed)

Entrepreneurship is a term that evokes everything associated with “being cool.” Young entrepreneurs – most notably Mark Zuckerberg – have sparked a renewed interest in creating the next big thing. And for good reason; Rebecca Bagley states that “the most powerful economic engine on our planet is the entrepreneur.” Naturally, the conversation is now shifting to the allocation of resources to these entrepreneurial conquerors through outreach programs. (Forbes)

For cities, the competition for young, talented residents is now a global affair. Young people are increasingly choosing cities with vibrant cultural centers, robust public transit systems, and affordable rents. Here are some cities outside the States that are finding their way into the crosshairs of globally-centered citizens. (New York Times)

The world of entrepreneurship and small business revolves around funding. Ideas are just ideas until dreams can become reality through loans or angel capital. We often hear that small business credit has dried up – a claim that is largely valid. But what if the remaining credit is being allocated to the wrong things? Unfortunately, the small amount of credit making its way into the small business community is not being targeted on things that actually matter to small businesses – it’s being funneled to real estate. (Atlantic Cities)

Residents Matter as Washington, DC Gets Ready to Create its First Sustainability Plan

This past Wednesday, over 400 residents of Washington, DC gathered in the Convention Center to form working groups that will inform the content of the city’s first sustainability plan.  The energy in the room was palpable, as Mayor Gray restated his vision to make Washington “the greenest city in the nation.” After introductory words from the Mayor, Planning Director Harriet Tregoning went over the results from initial outreach efforts and urged us to “think outside of the box” when outlining goals and targets for the plan.  We then separated into nine different groups and got down to work.

These groups will meet several times over the next two months and are part of the city’s broader engagement efforts.  Between September and November, city staff attended roughly 50 community meetings to get initial feedback from residents.  The information from those meetings, along with the goals and targets that the working groups develop, will be used to draft the plan (this version should be released in the Spring of 2012).  Needless to say, participating residents could have a quite a bit of influence over the design of our city’s sustainability plan!

Such rigorous community engagement activities that move towards more democratic decision-making processes are increasingly commonplace, which is encouraging given that, as a nation, we are ethnically, racially, and culturally diversifying—one or two stakeholder groups rarely represent the various interests in any city. As a result, planning departments are using an assortment of methods to acknowledge and incorporate the expertise and opinions of their constituents.  For example, Portland, Ore., has engaged in a rigorous community involvement process to design the Portland Plan. The city is using tools such as online platforms (Twitter, Facebook, videos); public hearings; community fairs; and an Inspiring Communities series, an educational tool for residents which features national and international experts on a range of sustainability topics.  Similarly, in the creation of Baltimore, Md.’s Sustainability Plan (formally adopted in 2009), the city engaged over 1,000 residents in an eight month period through working groups, a deliberate youth strategy, and sustainability forums.  The Office of Sustainability also formed a Youth Advisory Group that maintains the “Youth Zone” portion of their website in order to make sure that participation from this non-traditional group continues throughout the implementation of the plan.  Additionally, the webpage offers a place for city residents to share their individual efforts at creating a more sustainable city.

As a resident of Washington, I am curious to see how effectively the city will continue to engage its residents.  So far, they have been successful with their initial attempt to engage the community; however, I do wonder how deliberate they will be moving forward.  For example, how will the city purposefully reach out to residents who haven’t been involved as yet?  What will be the effect of our recommendations on deciding which targets to prioritize?  And how will the city continue to keep residents excited about sustainability (at an individual and community level) in the coming years?  Such questions are not necessarily new ones for community engagement experts; nevertheless, they need to be reframed and asked again as more and more local governments and residents come together around sustainability.  Luckily, there are already several model practices-such as those in Portland and Baltimore- which Washington and other cities can turn to for inspiration.

Don’t Discount the Value of a Library in a Digital World

Great cities have great central libraries. Some are architecturally significant such as in Seattle or Copenhagen. Others are signature buildings that embody the civic spirit and unique character of a community, such as in Fort Smith, Arkansas where the citizens voted to tax themselves in order to build a main library building and neighborhood branches.

Regrettably, in other cities such as my own Washington, D.C., the main central library is a shattered husk of its former self. Riddled with asbestos, bereft of modern technology and crumbling from the inside out the building, dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers little tangible value to the city and its residents.

Some will argue that in a digital age with iTunes, e-readers and online subscriptions that a public library is a waste of tax money. I disagree. A free public library, especially one in the heart of an ever-changing city, is much more than books, music, videos and a coffee bar. In fact, in the knowledge economy, a library with state-of-the-art Internet access is essential to the well-being of the citizens it serves.

At its core, a library is a gathering place for the curious mind and the social spirit. Cities thrive, say pundits Ed Glaeser, Richard Florida and countless others, because of the interactions among people in close proximity. This proximity allows for shared ideas, shared identity and shared purpose. More than this however, a library is a bridge between diverse parts of the city, an arena for the intellectual stimulation of children and a free venue for access to the Internet whether for employment searches or vacation planning.

On a grander plain, every instinct tells me that the written word remains as powerful as it has always been. In fact, stories, alerts, essays, treatises, research studies, blogs, tweets and also novels are more impactful today because of the vast number of distribution channels available to authors. As a society, we owe it to one another to ensure that the broad diffusion of information and knowledge is available in many forms to everyone. The city library ensures this access.

The Mies van der Rohe historic building that houses the D.C. library is 40-years old. A promising new study by the Urban Land Institute and the Downtown Business Improvement District recommends a number of options to reinvigorate the library. Suggestions include an outright sale of the building to developers which could earn the city anywhere from $50 to $70 million for such a prime piece of real estate. I favor a proposal calling for sharing and possibly expanding the space to attract private-sector partners that can generate the capital for redevelopment and long-term viability of the structure as a space that continues to offer a public benefit.

Todays unemployment numbers

The following post was written by Neil Bomberg, program director in NLC’s Center on Federal Relations:

November’s unemployment numbers, which were released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics or BLS, provide further evidence that the economy is continuing to improve after suffering the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

At first glance, last month’s numbers – a decline in the jobless rate from nine to 8.6 percent and a net increase of 120,000 jobs – are reason to celebrate.  When coupled with the fact that the economy has added nearly 3 million jobs over 21 months there is reason to believe that the economy is trending towards the right direction.

Yet despite these numbers, there remains reason for concern.  While the private sector payroll increased by 140,000 in November, the public sector payroll decreased by 20,000 – including 11,000 jobs in the local government sector.  And these job losses place a strain on the economy even if they are offset by private sector job growth.

Moreover, most economists agree that the economy’s improvement is very slow and very fragile and could be undone by economic problems in Europe, and by a failure of Congress to take positive steps to adopt an effective and appropriate jobs package.  And half of the drop in the percent of individuals unemployed from nine to 8.6 percent was due to a decline in the number of people who are considered part of the labor force, something that does not instill confidence.

But there is also good news in the numbers.  Generally at this time of year we expect to see significant job growth in the retail sector, and that certainly was the case in November.   Of the 140,000 private sector jobs created nearly 50,000 were in the retail trade sector, and of that 27,000 were in clothing and clothing accessories stores.  However, 90,000 jobs were created in other sectors including financial services (+8,000), professional and business services (+33,000), and education and health services (+27,000).

So the news from BLS includes some good and some bad news, but at least it can be said that the direction the unemployment and employment numbers are taking are in the right direction.

But it must also be said that from where NLC sits, without a jobs bill that provides adequate stimulus to the economy the growth in the economy will be anemic at best, and stagnant at worst.  It is time for Congress to act by passing a jobs program that puts people to work in important and meaningful jobs.