Carlos Delgado about Equitable Economic Development in U.S. Cities

Carlos Delgado in this interview talks about social and economic equity challenges in U.S. cities and shares his knowledge on connecting underserved communities to economic opportunities. Carlos is the leader of the Equitable Economic Development Fellowship program of the National League of Cities, serving as the primary point of contact for senior economic development officials interested in bringing an equity lens to work within their community. 

Learn about:

  • The shortcomings of traditional economic development policies and equity challenges in U.S. cities;
  • The National League of Cities and its Equitable Economic Development Fellowship program;
  • How economic development initiatives could connect underserved communities to economic opportunities;
  • Why transparency, innovation and community engagement should become the driving forces of sustainable cities.

Carlos, how did you first become involved in the economic development of cities?

My passion for local economic and community development started early on in my life. It has also been more than purely professional, as I have enjoyed volunteering and doing pro-bono work with several organizations in the United States, Canada, and Ecuador.

My professional career in city economic development began in Canada back in 2010, where I worked for the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) agency of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and for the Region of Durham, a regional municipal government in the GTA.

Prior to accepting my new position with the National League of Cities to lead the Equitable Economic Development Fellowship program, I was serving as acting chair of the Ontario Manufacturing Communities Alliance (OMCA). OMCA is a sector-based partnership between five Ontario municipalities, the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Growth, the Ontario Ministry of International Trade, and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to collectively promote the advanced manufacturing sector of the five member municipalities internationally.

I have always been intrigued to find ways to better institutionalize and foster inclusive collaboration between the public, private, academic, and nonprofit sectors.

You are currently leading the Equitable Economic Development (EED) Fellowship of the national League of Cities. Could you briefly explain what the fellowship is about and what are its primary goals?

Thanks to the generous support of the Surdna and Open Society Foundations, the EED Fellowship provides one year of intense technical assistance to an annual class of six U.S. cities to help them pursue more equitable and inclusive economic outcomes. The inaugural class included Boston, Charlotte, Houston, Memphis, Milwaukee and Minneapolis; and the current cohort includes Austin, Baltimore, Louisville, Nashville, Phoenix and Sacramento.

Through leadership development, technical assistance, peer learning and sharing best practices, the fellowship aims to influence economic development policy and practice so that equity, transparency, sustainability, innovation, and community engagement become driving forces on any project.

Within the fellowship, you provide assistance to six U.S. cities, helping city leaders pursue more equitable and inclusive economic development policies, programs and funding. What are the main principles of equity that you follow in this two-year project?

Economic mobility, income inequality, and racial inequity are critical concerns for mayors across the country. This problem must be matched with strategies that address inequality not only as a deeply concerning social problem but an economic one as well. The Equitable Economic Development Fellowship encourages cities to leverage their local economic development strategies to create more equitable access to opportunities within all of their communities.

Historically, traditional economic development policies and programs have not always benefited all populations. For example, states and localities spend $50 to $80 billion on tax breaks and incentives each year in the name of economic development. These traditional approaches to economic development by local governments have not benefited all populations. Also, in many cases, the policies and programs have particularly neglected or even shortchanged people of color, immigrants, and low-income communities.

Cities need to be intentional about targeting their economic development programs, funding and policies at the specific populations and neighbourhoods that are increasingly distant from the growth sectors of their regional and city economies.

For these reasons, some cities are looking for a new path forward by developing creative strategies to jumpstart their economies and intentionally connect underserved communities to economic opportunity. And we want to be partners with cities in this better way to conduct economic development.

What are the biggest equity challenges among these six cities?

Each city selects a specific challenge around equity in economic development for which they will receive technical assistance from guest experts assembled by the project team and their peers from the other five fellowship cities.

Throughout the year, the EED Fellowship also offers technical assistance via webinars on different topics identified by the six cities. Some of the topics covered include inclusive strategies for small business development and entrepreneurship support, best practices in collecting data for equitable economic development, institutionalizing equity in economic development programs and policies, and presenting a framework to incorporate an equity lens in economic development incentive packages.

The selected equity challenge should include issues about which the mayor: 1) frequently discusses with her or his advisors, 2) wants to learn more about and compare best practices from other cities, 3) is willing to take a year to study.

It should not be: 1) a very general topic related to economic development, such as tax reform, access to public transportation, or affordable housing, or 2) so complex that it would take more than a year to create a plausible approach and take at least initial actions.

Some of the previous topics from the first six cities included:

  • Training of workers with multiple barriers to employment, and tying incentives to hiring those workers;
  • Connecting vacant privately-owned commercial spaces to minority entrepreneurs and supporting those start-ups with financing resources;
  • Supporting worker cooperative incubator(s), focused on youth and minority-owned businesses;
  • Access to financial and knowledge capital for businesses owned by people of color, starting in one underserved neighborhood.

In your view, how could economic development initiatives make cities more sustainable?

If we want to build more inclusive and equitable cities, economic development and sustainability must go hand to hand.

According to the United Nations, more than 56 percent of the global population lives in cities these days, with a projected increase to 65 percent by 2050. This upward trend will add even more pressures to city leaders to efficiently serve their residents. This is why it is imperative for local city leaders to strategically plan for the future, dismantling silos and encouraging cross-sector/multi-discipline collaboration.

Thank you, Carlos.

Connect with Carlos Delgado via LinkedIn or learn more about the National League of Cities here.

IEDC logoCarlos Delgado is a speaker at the International Economic Development Council annual conference in Toronto, Canada, 17-20 September 2017. The Place Brand Observer proudly supports the conference as media partner.

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