June 3, 2012

Economic development requires creativity

By PAUL GRASSO, In Perspective

---- — About a year or so ago, I wrote a column about the seven attributes of a community with a competitive advantage. One of those attributes is a strong and diversified economy. Recently, I had occasion to think more about what economic development means.

I’ve always preferred Moseley’s definition. He defines economic development as “a sustained and sustainable process of economic, social, cultural and environmental change designed to enhance the long-term well-being of the whole community.”

Nationally, many rural communities viewed economic development narrowly and marketed abundant land and inexpensive labor as the catalyst to jump-start their economies. It wasn’t a bad strategy until many rural areas found they couldn’t compete with other parts of the world offering lower-cost labor. It took a while, but many rural areas finally learned that the “old ways” of economic development no longer worked.

Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case locally. Our economic-development strategies have worked. They’ve helped to create new jobs, raise income levels, diversify the economy, sustain local businesses and help them grow, and create new businesses.

Have they been successful 100 percent of the time? No, but many areas of the country would happily trade their success rate for ours.

The challenge now is to sustain that success.

I believe that to sustain a strong and diversified economy in the 21st century, a region needs to focus on doing three things well. They need to focus on innovation, capital investment and preservation.

Innovation is the hallmark of today’s knowledge-based, global economy. I think Eva Klein, a global knowledge economy expert, articulated it best. She said, “Since the dawn of civilization, there have been three waves of economic drivers or wealth creation. For the first 10,000 years of civilization, most jobs and wealth creation was tied to the Agrarian Age and related agricultural outputs. Over the last 200 years, the Industrial Age was the dominant economic driver. Today, we are in the Creative Age where knowledge, innovation, information and creativity drive today’s wealth creation and job growth.”

To be successful in competing for a larger share of the global economy, we need to do “old things” in “new ways.”

Capital investments are critical to economic development. We need to make greater investments in our infrastructure, and we need to expand our definition of infrastructure beyond what we consider traditional infrastructure (water, sewers and roads).

A community with a strong and diversified economy needs a strong civic infrastructure that includes a well-trained workforce, access to technology and cultural and natural amenities to attract new industries that provide higher-wage jobs that not only increase individual wealth but that also expands the local tax base.

Preservation of our region’s natural resources is essential to a 21st century economic-development strategy, since the region’s natural beauty and quality of life are two strong elements of what we market to companies (and individuals) thinking of locating here. For some, however, preservation and economic development are mutually exclusive concepts, but they don’t have to be. We need to find creative ways to ensure that economic development doesn’t result in the degradation of our natural resources, but rather preserves and enhances them.

Now, with the advent of bodies such as the North Country Regional Economic Development Council (NCREDC), there is a new and more comprehensive approach to addressing the North Country’s unique economic-development challenges.

Regional planning can be an integral part of creating a strong and diversified economy, but we need to remember that rural communities are not homogenous. Different economic contexts lead to different economic-development strategies.

In the end, it will be local creativity that will allow us to shape our future, a future that envisions thriving communities, high-quality public services, an enhanced environment and a diverse economy that provides stable levels of employment.

Paul Grasso is the executive director of the North Country Workforce Investment Board, Clinton, Essex, Franklin, and Hamilton counties’ designated workforce-development agency, and the North Country Workforce Partnership, Inc.