Rod, having dedicated over 40 years to economic development in the USA, do you remember what got you interested in the topic?
Yes, what attracted me then and keeps me motivated today is that the profession allows me to enhance the well-being and quality of life of a community through initiatives that enable growth and generate needed tax revenues to provide quality public services. How rewarding it is to help create an attractive and thriving business climate that attracts, retains and grows businesses that contribute to a diverse and resilient economy.
Besides contributing to the betterment of my community, a career in economic development is intellectually stimulating and gratifying. Economic developers must be subject matter experts in multiple fields and constantly attuned to economic and cultural trends. It is also interesting because it requires a combination of management, leadership and technical skills that one must learn and exercise to be successful.
The best part is that the practice and the inputs that go into it are ever-evolving, and no day is ever the same! Eventually, you will be exposed to many fields, disciplines and issues. You stay intellectually challenged and relevant through the lifelong learning it requires on many subjects you may not have been previously acquainted with.
How has the practice – or understanding – of economic development changed over the years?
It looks very different from my early days in the field when economic development was characterized as “smokestack chasing”. The common practice then was to travel to other areas and entice large companies to expand or relocate based on incentives, workforce, natural resources or location. This was a very narrow, sales-oriented approach.
Now, economic developers must be concerned with a more holistic view of economic development that includes being attentive to workforce development, talent attraction, housing affordability, equity, and inclusion, placemaking, gentrification and other issues that impact the success of a community, and its desirability as a business location.
Globalization, technological advances and the rise of the consulting practice of “site selection” have also necessitated tremendous changes in the way economic development is practised today. It is more sophisticated, requiring increased knowledge and greater strategic emphasis.
We have also learned that “economic development” is part of a larger community ecosystem whose parts are all dependent on each other, so greater collaboration between each component is required.
Do you observe any differences in how economic development is approached in North America versus Europe or Asia?
I have been trying to understand the differences for a few years now, and resources like The Place Brand Observer have been very helpful to my learning. There are certainly differences, but also similarities as well.
All of us use programs to promote community betterment through growth but I think the term “investment promotion agency” that is common in Europe is a more precise definition of what most economic developers in the US practice.
There is also a much greater emphasis and understanding of place branding in Europe that recognizes building a stronger community for the benefit of existing residents and employers that will have a long-term impact on attracting outside investment. In the USA, many communities reverse that – believing that attracting outward investment is the way to build the community up locally.
While Europeans use place branding techniques to a greater extent, I feel that in the US, economic developers use place marketing techniques such as advertising and promotion more. There is also greater participation from private sector businesses in funding community growth efforts and a stronger reliance on intermediaries such as regional EDOs and consultants.
In general, I believe my European counterparts have a longer-term expectation of growth and are focused more inwardly, while in the US, we focus more on the external and short term. That may be a reflection of cultural differences as well as a difference in the available resources and assets that are readily deployed.
I think there is much to be learned from both approaches and am heartened to see more opportunities for sharing and learning from each other occurring.
Reflecting on your own experience as President of Rowan EDC in North Carolina – and previously as President of the Wayne EDC in Ohio – what does it take for economic development initiatives to succeed?
First, a community must have a clear and focused strategic plan that capitalizes on that area’s unique resources and assets.
Secondly, a community must have the infrastructure (water, sewer, roads, etc.) to support business growth and its related indirect spinoffs.
Third, and maybe most importantly, a community must have an inventory of available sites or buildings to promote. An automobile dealer cannot sell cars if there are none on the sales lot and similarly, communities can’t entice a business to buy something that isn’t available.
Fourth, there must be consistent messaging about the community and its brand attributes over an extended period.
Finally, a business must be conducted in a collaborative fashion characterized by trust and transparency.
Which are the most common pitfalls to avoid (mistakes you have witnessed through your work)?
The adage that “you can’t sell from an empty wagon” is true. A community must focus on developing a positive buyer experience whether the target is a tourist, a new business or a new resident. Too often, communities put forth promotional schemes without having a fully developed product. If you want to be successful in selling to these audiences, you must have something that the potential buyer perceives as valuable before they will buy.
A second pitfall is that in the realm of investment attraction there is a great need to protect the confidentiality of the client. Companies do not want to reveal their plans prematurely for a variety of competitive or internal reasons. To successfully land a new prospect requires the involvement of many parties, and they all must be sworn to confidentiality even though there is a strong urge to share positive news with others. Breaching trust and confidence can not only kill a deal but a community’s reputation as well.
Economic development is closely tied to location branding which in turn is often confused with place marketing. How do you distinguish between those, and where are the links?
Place branding is concerned with the reputation and image of a location. It is how your community is viewed by its residents, visitors, neighbours and investment targets. It expresses the reputation, values and culture of a community and implements programs, policies and actions that support those. A place brand already exists for every community but can be changed over long periods with broad community buy-in and consistent execution.
While place branding is strategic and inward-focused, place marketing is more tactical and outward focused. It is about how you communicate the brand through what I call the “5 Ps of Place Marketing” those being the place (physical location), price (cost structure), product (sites & infrastructure), promotion (sales activities), and people (talent & workforce). Place marketing expresses a community’s offerings to target markets using traditional marketing techniques for short-term gains.
Looking ahead, what should economic development professionals look out for in terms of trends likely to affect the success of initiatives targeted at attracting businesses and investors?
The political climate has seemed to enter a period of instability and I think it is especially important to watch how the debates between nationalism and globalism play out across the globe. Countries using hard power tactics will lose brand equity and stimulate more immigration to other countries. Will the receiving countries be more welcoming and accepting of these new residents and use the occasion to grow their economy and workforce?
On a more macro level are population and demographic trends. One trend to watch out for is the increasing polarity between metro and non-metro regions. If populations continue to cluster around large metro areas, it will change place branding approaches for them and the ability to attract new investment to less urban and rural areas will be even more difficult.
For EDOs and IPOs, speed to delivery is becoming more critical. We live in a world where we expect service times to be immediate or as close to it as possible. Companies are also moving at a great speed to determine new or expanded facilities. The EDO and IPO must invest in the resources (product, technology and people) to meet their demands quickly.
How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted or changed economic development practice?
The pandemic has impacted economic development in several ways.
The biggest is how it dramatically changed how and where people work. People can now work virtually anywhere at any time. The rise in remote working and people wishing to live in less urbanized areas has led to more decentralization and less hierarchal management models. It has caused communities to shift from attracting new investment to attracting new talent. Economic developers must also adjust their product mix to this new reality and be heavily focused on workforce development and talent pipelines.
The second big shift caused by the pandemic was the need to quickly adopt new technology such as Zoom to continue to communicate with our audiences. I believe that many will continue to rely upon this technology for reasons of cost, convenience and speed. EDOs and IPAs will have to adapt by developing new marketing methods such as virtual site visits, real-time data and digital marketing.
Which cities or regions in the US have you found particularly inspiring and consider good examples to follow for their innovative and successful approach to economic development or place branding?
- Austin, TX and Nashville TN have been highly successful lately and have stayed true to their respective brands.
- Charlotte, North Carolina and Orlando, Florida are two smaller emerging markets that are doing well and executing some branding efforts.
- There are also interesting redevelopment/rebranding efforts underway in the Great Lakes region including legacy places like Detroit, Michigan, Cleveland, Ohio, Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
- Smaller markets like Asheville, North Carolina, Indianapolis, Indiana, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Des Moines, Iowa, and others are doing a great job.
- And of course, Rowan County, North Carolina!
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Economic development is subject to constant change because of changes in the political environment, culture and technology. Those practising economic development are at the forefront of responding to those changes and ensuring that their community remains competitive for new visitors, businesses and residents. It is an exciting and challenging time to be involved in the profession and certainly a most rewarding one as well.
Thank you, Rod.
Enjoyed our interview with Rod Crider on economic development practice: how it has changed over time and how it differs across regions? Thanks for sharing!