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Economic development from the bottom up

Neil McKenzie //May 31, 2011//

Economic development from the bottom up

Neil McKenzie //May 31, 2011//

The “bottom-up” economic development plan initiated by Gov. John Hickenlooper is beginning to take shape. The idea was to consolidate the state’s 64 counties into 14 regions which would prepare regional economic development plans. These regional plans would be then in turn rolled up into an overall state blueprint. The regional plans have been prepared and can be found at Bottom-Up Regional Statements. I encourage you to take a look at these plans and see how they might affect your region and its economic future.

The regional statements are diverse in ideas but they have several threads in common about getting our economy on a path to sustainable growth. Some of the ideas shared among the regions include:

• Tourism – Some regions in Colorado have a well-developed tourism sector and others are looking at tourism as a way to improve their local economies. The initiatives vary from continuing to grow traditional tourism activities to creating new ones like agri-tourism.
The region represented by El Paso, Teller and Park counties has put a special emphasis on including arts and culture into their tourism efforts. Most other regions did not mention arts as a driver to grow tourism. According to their plan they seek to, “Integrate arts and culture as part of the tourism product.”

• Communications – It is interesting to note that several regions want to increase the availability of broadband and wireless access to their areas. It seems that many of the more rural regions have little access to the information superhighway – getting access may have a big impact on the future of these areas.

• Access to Capital – Almost every region cited a lack of access to capital for small business as an area that needs to be addressed. The ideas presented range from using micro-finance, startup and venture capital funds to state regulations on lending. The lack of access to capital is not just a Colorado problem and it will be interesting to see what local solutions we can come up with.

• Regulations – Many of the regions felt that regulation was a hindrance to economic development. Upon closer inspection it appears that the regions that rely on oil and gas exploration are referring to industry specific regulations. Some regions which wish to develop their local historic districts felt that the regulations were much more local in nature.

• Public Works / Infrastructure – Along the same lines of having access to the information superhighway several regions felt that they needed better transportation resources to move goods and people to their areas – one even mentioned needing a cheaper way to ship goods. One region had much larger plans such as moving the National Western Stock Show to their region and building a NASCAR track.

• Help With Marketing and Entrepreneurship – Many of the more rural regions stressed the need for entrepreneurial assistance to help develop their local businesses. Marketing assistance to promote the regions was also high on their lists. Helping these regions grow their small businesses and helping them to market is a good opportunity for our State’s businesses and educational institutions to lend a hand.

Economic Development in the 21st Century

One of the challenges of bottoms-up economic development planning is to balance the interests of diverse regions with the capability of making meaningful change on a State level. The reality today is that economic development is more than just building a new stadium or giving large businesses incentives through tax breaks or other favorable treatment.
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We must build on what we have and create an environment that attracts and sustains businesses both large and small. Here are some things to consider:

• Economic growth of an area should build on an area’s strengths – things they already do well. Trying to be the next Silicon Valley or medical research triangle will probably end in failure with a lot of wasted resources. Our economic development regions need to take stock of what they do well and leverage these things for the next step. One of the basic concepts behind business planning is to capitalize on one’s strengths – economic development planning is no exception. Some of our strengths are tourism, energy, agriculture, technology and the creative sector.

• Businesses and entrepreneurs are attracted to areas that are high in creative capital. Richard Florida in his books on the creative class makes the case that entrepreneurs move to areas that have what he calls a high creative index – Colorado is just such an area. We have a diverse and well educated population, an appreciation for the arts and things cultural. In short Colorado is a place people want to live, work and start businesses.

• When creating our economic development plans we need to consider the world around us and how it is changing. Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind has some interesting ideas on what it takes to succeed and flourish in today’s global economy. He discusses three ideas about career choices that are needed to succeed – they are appropriate for our State’s planning regions as well.

• Abundance – In an age of abundance people want and will purchase products and services with a high creative and design content. Good examples of this range from designer toasters to the iPhone. The idea is that we should be producing goods and services with a high creative and design content and leave the “generic” to someone else.

• Automation- It seems that every day some activity is being automated and this means a loss of jobs for some. Productivity has recently soared and this has meant producing more (or the same) with less (usually labor). This is great for a company’s bottom line but not so great if you are one who has lost their job. We should not encourage occupations that are like to be automated. A better choice would be to be the one’s designing the automation not those being replaced by it.

• Asia – In Pink’s view, Asia is a term for off shoring. If a job, product or service can be produced in another country by using much cheaper labor then it probably will be. We must make sure that our economic development efforts are not throwing money after something that is likely to out-sourced. Jobs that are high in creative content are the least likely to be sent to a foreign land.

The Role of Government

The State government has an important role to play in economic development of the its diverse planning regions. Areas where the State can contribute include:

• Bringing the regions together to develop an overall set of goals and strategies that will help each economic development region.
• Help create a brand for Colorado and market it to the rest of the country and the world.
• Support education to make sure that we will continue to attract talented people and prepare our citizens for the skills needed to be successful in the future.
• Make sure that our infrastructure such as transportation and communications are adequate to thrive in a 21st century world economy.
• Assist in using existing agencies and educational institutions to improve the skills of our entrepreneurs.
• Promote our creative sector – “Colorado Creates” is a good start!

I would be interested in hearing you thoughts about how to move Colorado into a solid position of substantial and sustainable growth. Colorado like a lot of other states are at a crossroad with regards to plotting a future economic development course – let’s develop a plan that will capitalize on our strengths and prepare us to take advantage of opportunities in a changing world.
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