Interview with Jeff Finkle on Economic Development Practices in the USA

Jeff Finkle, President and CEO of the International Economic Development Council with headquarters in Washington D.C. in this interview discusses America’s long history of specialized economic development professionals, working for cities, regions and states.

Economic development is a key component of and often the main motivation behind initiatives aimed at building a strong, competitive place brand. It is a balancing act between stimulating economic growth and sustainable development. In his interview, Jeff Finkle tells us how 21st century economic development professionals tackle this and other challenges.

Learn about:

  • What economic development is all about;
  • How place management and place branding relate to economic development;
  • Whether economic development organizations are prepared for the ‘smart city’ challenge;
  • How to measure the success (ROI) of economic development initiatives;
  • 3 books every economic development professional should read.

Jeff, do you remember the first time you heard about economic development? What got you interested?

I think the first time that I heard the words, I was probably in college. The first time I understood the words, I was working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As I have worked in the field of economic development over many years, I think I have learned that my life has been a microsim of intersections with the term.

I grew up in the rust belt and saw the closures of many factories. I saw people lose jobs as a result of a military base closure. My hometown community had a beautiful downtown and then it was not so beautiful anymore, but now it is coming back.

Seeing economic development through the lens of my hometown of Newark, Ohio, makes my work more interesting and relevant every day.

Now in mid-2015, how has the economic development landscape changed?

The economic development landscape has changed dramatically since I first got into the business. That was in the days before the Internet, email, GIS, cell phones, etc. Site location consultants now can do much of their research online.

So, while economic developers still play a major role in brokering information and deals, they now do so much more than that. They provide highly customized data and services, and they are no longer primarily “chasing smokestacks.” Economic development professionals spend much more of their time now on business retention and expansion, workforce development, entrepreneurship and creating quality places.

The economy is so different now. So much more U.S. employment was in manufacturing in the late 20th century. Back then, people moved to where the jobs were. Now, many young professionals decide where they want to live and then look for a job there. Economic developers play a big role in making their communities attractive not just to companies but to workers.

Which achievements as President and CEO of IEDC, world’s largest economic development membership organization, are you most proud of?

In 2001, we successfully completed the merger of the American Economic Development Council and the Council for Urban Economic Development, bringing the resources, expertise and members of the two primary economic development associations under one roof. We also broadened our scope to become international at that point. Those accomplishments have helped use raise the profile and professionalism of economic development field.

IEDC also created a new level of membership, the Economic Development Research Partners (EDRP), which has enabled us to conduct cutting-edge research for our profession. Through EDRP, we have been able to create and share knowledge that helps our members understand a wide variety of issues that affect the profession – from the state of manufacturing today to how to measure your organization’s performance, to the smart use of incentives, and many other important topics.

I’m also proud of the work we have done around disaster economic recovery ever since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Since then, we have been involved in helping communities prepare for and recover from a range of economic challenges, including the Gulf Coast oil spill, Hurricane Sandy, tornadoes across the southeast and many others. We think this knowledge and experience will become even more relevant and critical in the future.

In you view, what is economic development all about? And how does it relate to the concepts of place management or place branding?

Economic development is about creating places where people want to invest, work and live. It’s about making connections between people, companies, institutions, and communities.

Place management and place branding are an essential part of that, but you have to ensure a quality product to begin with.

Place is very important, but so is capacity, in regard to talent, infrastructure, entrepreneurial capacity, and many other aspects. Economic developers play a key role in identifying and filling those gaps.

In our interview with Philip Kotler, he stressed the need for cities to pay attention to the growing interest in “smart cities” that are digitally wired and educate their citizens in the newer technologies for making cities work better for more people. From your experience, are economic development professionals and –organizations prepared for this task?

Some are definitely more prepared than others. Much of it depends on the environment they are working in. Some of our members work in communities that struggle to provide basic services, while others are on the cutting-edge of technology and innovation.

Economic developers are expected to be knowledgeable of and active in so many aspects of improving a community; they are Jacks and Jills of all trades. They have dealt with the massive technological changes we have experienced over the past 15 years like everyone else; they have to be aware of these changes, constantly building their skills and capacity to work in an ever-changing environment. Partnerships and collaborations can be a big help in this area.

How to measure the success (ROI) of economic development initiatives?

There is no one answer to this question. Our EDRP program, which I referenced earlier, conducted extensive research on this topic and produced a report last year called “Making it Count: Metrics for High Performing EDOs.” It suggests metrics that economic development organizations can choose from based on their mission, functions and resources.

For instance, you would use different metrics for brownfield redevelopment than you would for an entrepreneurship strategy, or a campaign to be at 8 trade shows a year, versus a business retention visitation program.

But that’s what it depends on – the charge of the economic development organization. If your role is to increase the tax base or create a certain number of jobs, then there are ways to figure out what you are getting in return for dollars invested.

It’s trickier to measure the impact of connections made, relationships built, and projects initiated that may have a huge impact years down the road. A community has to decide what it wants from its economic development organization and how it will define success.

Which social/news media do you follow for latest place branding and economic development insights and updates?

I read IEDC’s own newsletter for good economic development insights and updates. I also belong to a great number of LinkedIn groups that allow me to follow a number of activities and postings.

Ed Burghard of Strengthening Brand America is a great resource for this, as is Andy Levine of Development Counsellors International.

3 books every economic development professional should read…

Some of these books have been around a while, but they are important to understand what is going on in business and in your community.

The New Geography of Jobs by Enrico Moretti (2013)

The Rise of the Creative Class–Revisited: Revised and Expanded by Richard Florida (2014)

Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance by Michael Porter (1998)

Your thoughts on The Place Brand Observer?

Place branding is important, but not necessarily well understood or well executed. The Place Brand Observer has a wealth of information that economic developers can use to learn the nuances of how place branding works and what makes a good strategy.

Thank you, Jeff.

Connect with Jeff Finkle on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter. More about the International Economic Development Council at iedconline.org.


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