Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Wishing for New Year's Resolutions

2015 will be a much more pleasant year if we resolve to redefine two critical words: “regionalism” and “economic development.”

These words are ubiquitous in civic conversations, yet their meanings vary widely depending on both the messenger and the audience. What we think those two terms mean has great influence over what programs we support and the actions we take.

First, regionalism is not about government consolidation. That is called government consolidation. Regionalism is too important to be defined by such a narrow, and relatively insignificant, issue. Our governments are not regional, our economy is. The exchange of goods and services (including labor) is concentrated within a geography (called a region) that extends beyond political boundaries (cities and counties). That our economy is regional requires us to be able to think, plan and act regionally about key priorities that shape a regional economy's competitiveness; issues like talent, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Regionalism also involves strengthening local assets and connecting them to the regional economy. Those assets include our residents, our public infrastructure, our natural assets, our centers of innovation and our businesses. Cities and counties don’t have economies, they have assets. Local leaders should be focused on asset development rather than misusing the term “economic development.”

Much of what is touted as “economic development” does not result in an expanded regional economy. Where is the economic growth in the building of a new shopping center or an office building that simply causes existing structures to be emptied? Such developments may increase a community’s tax base, but that’s called “tax base development” not “economic development.” Jason Segedy, who runs the municipal planning agency in greater Akron, warns that in the absence of population growth our propensity to sprawl is both unprecedented and unsustainable.

A simple definition of economic development has eluded me, but if public and/or philanthropic dollars are to be spent in the name of "economic development," I would hope the funded actions result in both a larger regional economy and increased economic opportunity for residents who are presently disconnected from the economy.

Advancing a growing, opportunity-rich economy requires us to excel at both regionalism and economic development. We should all resolve to agree on what those words mean and what it takes to excel at them.

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