Cities Focus on Talent, Quality of Life to Grow Local Economies

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Instead of focusing singularly on business attraction or workforce development, mayors across the country are taking a more holistic lens to economic development.

Denver-Downtown-ActivityPeople wandering around shops and restaurants in downtown Denver. Getty Images.

In his State of the City speech earlier this year, Mayor Greg Fischer from Louisville shared his mantra for economic development: “In today’s world, companies can’t locate just anywhere – their workforce is not interchangeable. They want to locate where they can find a pool of skilled workers – and a place with the quality of life to attract and retain them, no matter where they are from. So the jobs follow the people.”

Our analysis of annual State of the City speeches finds that many mayors across the country are thinking about economic development in a similar way, taking a more holistic lens instead of focusing singularly on business attraction or workforce development.

The quality of life in a city is an important deciding factor in where residents and businesses locate. Making a city a place where people want to live, then, will also make it a place where people will want to work or start a business.

Demographic trends indicate that this shift in approach to economic development is coming at just the right time. The Kauffman Foundation points to data showing there will be more “thirty-somethings” in the U.S. over the next 20 years than ever before. As Kauffman researchers have suggested, this is an exciting opportunity for cities because the “peak age” for entrepreneurship is late thirties to early forties.

No Time Like the Present

Based on this data there is, quite literally, no time like the present to support small business growth and entrepreneurs. Our analysis of State of the City speeches demonstrates that cities are starting to prepare themselves for this new entrepreneurial environment. Larger cities are seemingly leading the way in developing city initiatives to support start-up growth, but smaller cities are a player in this game too.

Small business is the common business-related topic mentioned by all cities, with 37% of mayors discussing it during their addresses. This does not come as a surprise since small businesses are a key economic driver in a lot of cities, regardless of their size.

Overall, 19% of mayors discuss entrepreneurship in their speeches, with the majority (36%) coming from large cities. However, in cities with 100,000 or less in population, 10% of mayors discuss entrepreneurship, which means this topic isn’t completely off the radar among smaller communities.

Two widespread strategies for supporting entrepreneurship, accelerators and incubators, are not mentioned at all in cities under 50,000 in population, but are discussed somewhat frequently by big city mayors (4% and 18% respectively).

Cities Spearhead Economic Growth

Across regions and population sizes, the cities we analyzed are spearheading some interesting initiatives to support economic growth in their communities.

Providing support to business owners is a theme throughout many mayors’ state of the city addresses. Mayor Bill Lambert in Moscow, Idaho, discussed how he helps support the Palouse Knowledge Corridor, a partnership between two area research universities, economic development agencies, the business community and city government that strives to create economic opportunities in the region.

As part of these ongoing efforts, the city will help host an event called, “Be the Entrepreneur Bootcamp” designed to help entrepreneurs develop business plans and connect with mentors and investors.

Mayors are also pledging to cut red tape at city hall and make it easier for local companies to comply with the city’s regulatory requirements. “The spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and well in Seattle, and we need to make sure the city is contributing to – and not inhibiting – that energy and enthusiasm,” said Seattle Mayor Edward Murray. “This year, the Office of Economic Development will launch a new online restaurant resource guide to help new restaurant owners navigate the local and state regulatory process.”

Workforce development approaches were also highlighted in the city’s speeches. Recognizing that “unemployment is unacceptably high in communities of color, particularly among young men,” Jersey City’s Mayor Steven Fulop will be connecting students to construction apprenticeship programs offered in partnership with local unions and developers as part of the city’s overall goal to increase job placement by 33%. Similarly, in Providence, the city is investing in construction apprenticeship programs through Building Futures and YouthBuild Providence.

The Role of Mayors

A mayor’s role in growing a city’s local economy takes on many forms, from creating well-paying jobs to training a skilled workforce to developing an environment that attracts families and business owners alike.

Economic development was the most frequently-cited topic in our analysis of state of the city speeches, with 98% of mayors mentioning it and 67% dedicating a significant portion of their remarks to the topic. NLC will be releasing more information about this and more topics when we publish our State of the Cities report later this month at the Congress of Cities Conference.

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About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate, Finance and Economic Development at NLC  and the author of a new report on entrepreneurship and small business growth. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.