Understanding economic development

I have been on the economic development board since 2007. Much has progressed and changed since then but two things that have remained constant are talk at the board level about a general misunderstanding of what economic development consists of and about how that leads to a constant battle for funding for economic development activities.

This is a problem that we need to do a better job of addressing. This may not be the most exciting column I’ve ever written but the topic is important to the future of the community.

In attempting to define economic development for this column, I discovered there are plenty of definitions available. Some were quite unfitting for application to the work being done in modern society. The best definition I found was from the Cambridge Dictionary and reads as follows: The process in which an economy grows or changes and becomes more advanced, especially as both economic and social conditions are improved.

Missing from the definition is the process of how economic development happens. It doesn’t happen by accident and it doesn’t happen quickly. Yet that is an assumption and expectation that we often encounter.

Successful economic development takes hundreds of cold calls with lots of dead ends and rejections. It takes plenty of follow up conversations and many hours putting together site packages. It takes a whole lot of effort without a guarantee of a success. Economic development also takes a very fine balancing act. Wants must be balanced with needs, the expectations of property owners must be balanced with the desires of the property developers, existing property use must be balanced with future development plans. And all this needs to be balanced with reality.

To write this column, I took the opportunity to ask our local director of economic development, Jim, a few questions. I asked him if he could say one thing to the people of Northeast Michigan about economic development, and have them fully understand what he was telling them, what would he want to say? He said he would like people to know that we live in a competitive world. Everyone is looking for the same thing, so we must find ways to work smarter to attract our piece of what’s available.

This is a great point. Many of us know that we are a great community deserving of development, and deserving of the best. However, us knowing that doesn’t automatically equate to others knowing that and investing in us. We need to work smarter and harder to tell that story and to sell that reality. If we want to be successful in our economic development efforts, we must come together and support those efforts through funding.

That brings me to another grand misunderstanding about economic development efforts. Someone must pay for someone to do the work. The hours of cold calls and site package preparations, the dinners to discuss opportunities with property developers, the travel to visit headquarters of site developers, are all expenses that someone must pay for. Many people believe it is a function of government. Sure, they should be contributors, but they can’t, and shouldn’t, be the sole funders. Successful economic development impacts us all because it improves our community. Our activities are currently funded through investments by various government entities, businesses, and some individuals. But of course, there are always more things to be done than resources available to do them.

While you may notice activity around town, like buildings changing occupants, new construction, and building occupants moving locations, you may not always realize the work that goes on behind the scenes to make that happen. But now you know that these things don’t happen easily. Sometimes the conversations are years long. These things also don’t fall into our laps.

The successes you see are the result of lots of rejection, hundreds of cold calls, and extensive time spent building relationships. Next time you see a physical sign of economic development, go ahead and smile because things are happening, but also take a minute to appreciate the work that went into making that project a reality.

Jackie Krawczak is president/CEO of the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce. Her column runs bi-weekly on Thursdays. Follow Jackie on Twitter @jkrawczak.