Considering the job losses, declining tax revenues, and other economic disruptions of recent years, it’s not surprising that economic development has become a high profile subject for planners. Just look at the first two key findings of national survey by APA from a year ago: “Less than one-third of Americans believe their communities are doing enough to address the country’s economic situation” and “very few Americans believe that market forces alone will improve the economy and encourage job growth.” Cities, counties, and other public and quasi-public organizations are keen to take action, and a popular place to start is with an economic development strategic plan.

Region vs. City

So what makes a good plan? I think there is a critical distinction of geographic scale that must guide the strategic planning process from the start. The relevant factors and effective strategies are different for region than for a city. (Counties tend to fall somewhere in between, with elements from either of these two scales potentially being relevant depending on the local context.) Most of the tools and terminology used in economic development planning today is geared toward regions, such as the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s requirements for preparing a grant-funded Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS). Since many researchers (such as the Brookings Institution) are increasingly focusing on metro areas as the key geographic unit of analysis in addressing economic development, this seems to make sense. They are large enough to encompass a common set of economic dynamics while still exhibiting local characteristics that differentiate one place from another.

Cities, on the other hand, are typically much smaller and there are many of them present in a large urbanized region. Because people and goods are highly mobile, economic activity in one city is linked to other cities across the region. City boundaries mean little to commuting or shopping patterns – people just go where they need to go, and businesses locate themselves where they have the best chance of benefiting from that activity. So the most relevant factors for a city’s economic development strategy are likely to be different from those for a region’s strategy. To put it simply, a region should be more concerned about the types and characteristics of its key industry clusters, while a city should focus more on whether it offers development sites or work spaces that are attractive to the companies that make up those industry clusters.

Good Examples

A good economic development plan for a region probably looks a lot like Charleston, South Carolina’s Opportunity Next strategy. It looks at a host of relevant trends and existing conditions, compares the region to both peer metros and leading metros that provide successful examples, and identifies both target industry clusters and local “core competencies” that should be the focal points of business recruitment and retention strategies, workforce development, and infrastructure development. The plan is a roadmap for the entire region, but the priorities it lays out will be accomplished in different ways according to local conditions and resources with help from the regional development authority.

At the city level, where deals are struck and investments are made, a good economic development plan should directly address the strengths and weaknesses of a place that are relevant to business decision-makers. The ten factors contained in a self-assessment tool created by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy demonstrate what a city’s key concerns should be, including access to customers and markets, concentration of businesses and services, and real estate and infrastructure. Some of these factors are also relevant at the regional level in a general way, but it’s at the city level where the details matter most.

Planning for Economic Development

And that’s where good planning comes in – planning in general, not just economic development planning. It might be easier to just throw money at companies through tax breaks and other giveaways to get them to come to your town, but that’s not a financially sustainable strategy in an era of limited resources and it leaves a city vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Wouldn’t it be better to attract business investment by being a superior place for investment? Good planning combines natural advantages with thoughtful public actions and investments to produce places where transportation accessibility, quality of life, workforce characteristics, and other qualities combine to form a place that is a good location to grow a business. The exact combination of ingredients will be different for every place, and a good plan helps write the recipe.

--Dave Stamm, Cities That Work Blog