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Strategic planning

Getting Down to Business


Getting Down to Business


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


Is Your Vision a Source of Derision?

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Is Your Vision a Source of Derision?


design drawing It’s pretty common for a vision to face condescension. Visioning can seem like a feel-good exercise that paints a rosy scenario, and you’ll hear people lament that it accomplishes little if anything meaningful. But it doesn’t need to be that way. There are ways to avoid common missteps that prevent community visions, or their more expensive regional vision brethren, from becoming irrelevant and wasteful exercises in civic booster-ism.

I think there are five keys to a successful community vision. By successful, I mean the vision is endorsed or adopted by the relevant governing board or boards, and it is effectively integrated into the organization’s operating procedures. It will have measurable objectives and targets defined, milestones for achieving them, responsibilities assigned and resources allocated to appropriate individuals, departments or organizations, and a mechanism for regular reporting of progress toward achieving the vision. To get there, a vision needs broad-based community support and it must tell an effective story about the neighborhood, community or region and where it wants to go. Here’s how:


Threats, challenges and opportunities need to come into sharp focus in the minds of the broader public and key community stakeholders. Where are the community conflicts? Why is it conflicted? Who are the actors in the conflict and what are their real motivations? It is imperative to make sure there is an increased awareness of the issues and trade-offs of doing nothing and doing something (or things). Visioning efforts often address the questions of Where are we now and Where are we going as the basis for helping people see the implications of past and present decisions on the future. Most importantly, you simply must have a keen awareness of the shared values in the community and how they can serve as a foundation for a future vision.

People standing outside a building.


You have to be real to know values. The only way to build trust and establish credibility with a vision process is to go the extra mile to demonstrate a commitment to learning about the community and relating the work on the vision to the needs expressed by the community. In the East Gainesville, FL minority neighborhoods, I held front porch meetings over sweet tea with residents concerned that prior planning efforts focused on other parts of the city. In Sanford, a community raw with racial tension over the Trayvon Martin incident, I spent several hours talking with people in the Historic Goldsboro neighborhood about ways to better their neighborhood at a Saturday morning community event celebrating the work of Dr. Velma Williams, the onlyAfrican American ever elected in Seminole County.


Pretty pictures certainly intrigue and inspire, but a successful vision is based on relevant analysis exploring alternatives and trade-offs. To be relevant, the analysis needs to relate to values of the community and sources of conflict. Perhaps use performance measures that the community helps to select. What are the implications of doing nothing or taking a specific action? What kinds of information do the public, community leaders and elected officials need to get comfortable with a concept or to make a decision?


A vision has to be a dynamic process. Having a work plan or scope is important, but you can’t be bound by the plan when circumstances dictate a change in methods or direction. Adapting to issues and responding quickly to new ideas or different actors engaging at different times shows that you are listening effectively and have the pulse of the community. The challenge is avoiding losing focus on outcomes by constantly responding or adjusting methods. But the greater risk is to hold to a work plan or a preconceived set of recommendations and lose credibility by not being responsive.

people attending a workshopAccomplishment

Developing and carrying out a vision takes time, and people have the attention span of a...well...modern Internet consumer. The vision may be long range in nature, but it must include at least two specific, meaningful actions that can occur with the flip of a switch once adopted. In fact, if the vision has a branding name like "envision" or "imagine," change the name to "destination" or "forward [insert name here]." This is necessary to show a distrustful and perhaps jaded public that there is commitment to the vision and a sincere desire for change. But the accomplishments can’t stop there. On a regular basis, say every year or two, there needs to be a highly visible public accounting of progress, results achieved and adjustments made to fulfill the vision. Even incremental responses and partial solutions should get some love. Pat yourself on the back for minute, acknowledge the kudos, and then move on to the next task.

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