If you think economic growth is only derived from flat spots out of the floodplain with all utilities, you’re wrong. Well, not entirely wrong. Just partly wrong.
Economic development in the current era is much more than real estate and infrastructure. It’s now arguably as much about quality of life – and place – as it is about available utilities and buildings. Vibrant downtowns, thriving arts communities, and outdoor recreation activities are tried and true catalysts for community and economic development. Sadly though, each of those elements are often overlooked (and underappreciated) for their contribution to local and regional economic growth. Depending on which side of the aisle you sit, the argument might sound like this: “Without businesses and jobs, we can’t support things like restaurants, boutique retail, festivals, outdoor recreation, etc.” That’s a fair argument. But jump over to the other side of the aisle and the argument sounds a little different. “Without things to do and nice places to visit, we can’t attract businesses, jobs, or talent”. Also a fair argument. However, the problem with both perspectives is that one forsakes the other, and neither place an emphasis on the synergy between the two. It begs the age-old question of “the chicken or the egg?”
“The chicken or the egg?” is a timeless metaphor that attempts to summarize the relationship between two events, and which should be considered the cause, and which should be considered the effect. It’s meant to demonstrate the difficulty of sequencing actions/events/outcomes where each seems to depend on the others occurring first. To match our metaphor with a simile, this debate is often like a dog chasing its tail. It just goes around and around, never really accomplishing anything meaningful, but it sure seemed like fun at the time. So if we’re going to apply this metaphor to community and economic development, what’s the chicken and what’s the egg?
For the purposes of our discussion, the chicken represents qualified sites and sufficient infrastructure that allows for targeted business attraction/expansion efforts. It also represents an available, capable workforce. Site selectors are professionals who are tasked with vetting parcels of real estate and physical structures for their applicability to a specific list of criteria set forth by businesses looking to expand/locate/relocate in, or to an area. As a LEDO (local economic development organization), the Port Authority receives RFIs (requests for information) from site selectors a few times a month and without fail, the list of criteria of the RFIs is staggering. Competing in that space is extremely difficult because it requires a depth of knowledge about the capacities of local infrastructure that rural communities often lack. That’s assuming the desired infrastructure even exists. Here’s where I need you to hold on to your chair because I have some not so flattering news to share with you: Washington County cannot compete for 99% of the RFIs that land in our Inbox. But, that’s a much larger discussion for another day. Suffice it to say, we are woefully underprepared to compete in the site selection game on a state, national, or global level. To be polite, we have “opportunities”…
When we talk about an available and capable workforce, I quickly return to my days as a workforce developer and can say with great pride, that what we lack in available sites and infrastructure, we make up for in workforce. Both from our employment base, and from our world-class educational institutions. Marietta and Washington County are extremely fortunate to have a private college with a global reach that annually contributes $50+ million to the economy, and nearly $3-million to our local tax base; we have the #1-ranked career center and the #1-ranked community college in Ohio, all located in our county seat. Culturally, we still value work ethic and skilled labor, making our employment base reliable and worth building a business around. As a state, Ohio has one of the best workforce development ecosystems in the country and there’s never been more focus on, or resources for, developing a skilled workforce as there is right now.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows when it comes to our workforce. Rural “brain drain” is a real thing and harking back to a statement I made in a previous blog – we aspired to attract, but our reality is retention. We should be placing more emphasis on retaining talent than we are at the moment. When you look into why we are losing talent, the easy response is that there are more, better-paying jobs in the “3 Cs” than there are in the MOV. Although this is true to a degree, I can tell you there are plenty of quality jobs available in this area and many go unfilled due to a plethora of reasons. Anecdotally, we all know of someone who left because “there’s nothing to do around here” and that creates a void in our talent pool that results in good jobs going unfilled; which in turns stifles our local economy.
As the nature of work changes and the impacts of COVID begin to reveal themselves, opportunities to work remotely will increase in lockstep with people’s desire to live somewhere less “complicated” than the city. Enter sleepy little Marietta and Washington County will all our charm.
The egg in our discussion is the quality of life and place that a given area has to offer. Remember our site selectors from earlier? As the dynamics and demographics of our workforce evolve, and as technology continues to change how we do business, so too does the list of criteria used by business owners, investors, and site selectors in determining where to locate, or expand their footprint. Thriving, aesthetically pleasing downtowns play a much large role in economic development than most folks realize. Some metrics, like sales tax and real estate values, are easy to calculate at a local level. When your downtown is rocking, the tax revenues increase, which means you can allocate more money towards the things communities value like police, fire, roads, and more. And if your downtown is a ghost town, so goes your local economy.
Organizations like Marietta Main Street and the Marietta- Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau are driving and championing the activities, investment, and outcomes that enhance the quality of life and place in our city and county. As these organizations work tirelessly to add to, and enhance the “cool factor” of living, working, and owning a business in this area, they are directly contributing to the economic growth and vibrancy of our believed communities in a way that deserves and demands respect. Their work has never been more important than it is at this very moment.
So which comes first?
Don’t spend too much time trying to figure that out because it’s a trick question. It’s not about which comes first, or what causes what, or even what is more important because successful community and economic development efforts are linked at the hip. It takes a holistic approach that leverages the strengths and synergies of like-missioned organizations to achieve the level of success most of us desire. And you’ll be happy to know that this very thing is happening in your community at this very moment. If you’d like to learn more about how the CVB, Main Street, and the Port Authority are working together to improve our overall economic wellbeing and quality of life, please reach to us and we’ll set aside time to share our collective vision with you.