Kate Porsche, our Urban Renewal Manager, stopped by my office earlier today and could not find a graceful way to avoid one of my monologues about economic and community development. I have a number of pet theories about this subject; and, apparently, my need to express them wasn’t satisfied by an audience of one.
I have believed for a long time that the best development strategy for a city is to make the community a great place to live. Communities that are always looking to improve themselves do better than those that are committed to maintaining the status quo. City government plays an important role in looking for ways to improve, but the key to success is partnership. Those cities that learn to work through their differences constructively devote their energy to accomplishments rather than to destructive personal fights and vendettas.
I am not attracted to one-size-fits-all development plans or theories that claim to be “the” way to do economic development. Many of these ideas are useful and may be broadly applicable; however, the fact that someone has enjoyed success with a tourism strategy, an industrial park, a business incubator, incentive programs, or small business assistance does not necessarily mean the experience can be replicated everywhere else. Every community has its unique blend of assets and liabilities that should be the first consideration when developing a plan for the future.
The economic development industry is a highly competitive place where communities can get drawn into expensive investments without any guarantee of a reasonable return. A few years ago, a company running call centers approached desperate rural communities and offered to locate there if the community would forego property taxes and give them the land and building they needed, plus a cash incentive. Remarkably, at least two Oregon communities agreed to this deal only to watch the call center leave after a few years to locate in the developing world. The company did not even have the grace to give back the property it was given.
Expensive marketing efforts can also take large sums of money without delivering results. I know of a number of communities who would send representatives to trade shows in distant places or put ads in national newspapers to no effect. Imagining that a well-placed ad will attract a major employer is a little like planning to get rich by purchasing a lottery ticket. Anything can happen, but the odds are not very good.
Albany has, in my opinion, taken a good approach to these issues over the years. The community has focused on investing locally through tools like urban renewal, while insuring that there is available land and infrastructure for new industry. The Small Business Development Center at Linn-Benton Community College is also an important resource, and the partnerships among local governments and the private sector have led to some notable successes. Recent discussions with Corvallis and Benton County and good relations with Linn County, Millersburg, and Lebanon offer promise for more regional cooperation. Stronger, sustainable, more prosperous communities will be the result of effective collaboration and continuing efforts to make things better.