Saturday, February 26, 2005

Talking Community Economic Development...

Discussion, rumours, even hearsay regarding community development reoccurs in our community in cycles. Nevertheless, it's substance has a tendency to leave us dumbfounded. Community economic development will always be an important issue to those communities that struggle economically and struggle with population growth. Work, the education that precedes it, and the socialization by our consumer culture to buy stuff are central tenets of our living. The economy as a social institution is primary to our existence in the westernized, global economy.

I would suggest that for the average Owensboro citizen community economic development is a frustrating notion of which most people feel they have no control. Most of us feel we are at the whims of those making decisions, and that our jobs and job opportunities are dependent on what "they" decide for "us".

Our local economy has passed through a wood chipper of change over the past two decades. We have moved from a tobacco based economy to a retail based economy, thus losing a strong foundation of economic activity and local market strength which supported jobs and a stable household income.
Do you, like I, sense that our community needs to fish or cut bait?

A recent article in the Messenger Inquirer illustrates the ongoing need to address community economic development. Jumping into those discussions without something to buoy our ideas and suggestions on improving the economic plight of our community would result in another vein, quick fix attempt to remedy a problem that has deep roots. We can decide to direct our course as this wave of change sweeps us up. Or, we can sit passively and let it take us wherever it is for us to go. If we are passive, we could very well end up in troubled waters.

To gain perspective on the direction that our community should take regarding community economic development, it is important to provide a foundation from which we can brainstorm and ultimately set forth a course of action for our community.

The traditional approach to community economic development has been to focus on human capital. Patrick Fitzsimmons provides a brief overview of this perspective on economic development.. Here, human capital is defined as the skills and knowledge that local citizens have to bring to the labor force. Do people in the local community have the education and knowledge base to perform the jobs in the community? Given the level of income and standard of living that people want to achieve, are the skills and education present with the people to attract the jobs that will meet these expectations? Our community approach has been in the form of brain gain initiatives(looking outward) and on increasing the education level and work skills of the local population (looking inward). Human capital theory suggests that a growing population forces the economy to grow, increasing the number of jobs, and increasing the amount of economic activity occurring in those communities.

An approach that has received critical acclaim is the social capital theory. Robert Putnam's New York Times Bestseller "Bowling Alone" has been tagged as best illustrating the dynamics to this approach. Social capital focuses on the linkages that individuals have to others through civic activity. Volunteer work and work that promotes the ties that bind citizens together serves as a fundamental basis for intra-neighborhood alliances, replicated across communities and between communities. Putnam has built on this work and continues to provide critical analysis of the role of civic life in community living. Much has occurred in Owensboro-Daviess County to promote civic capital, as is evidenced by the work of groups such as Community Conversations, the Public Life Foundation, and the Neighborhood Alliances. Community and economic development may or may not have been the intent or mission of these groups, but their work is an example of how providing opportunities for citizens to connect with neighbors and community institutions promote involvement, engagement, and buy in to those activities that make communities work.

The last perspective that has gained increasing popularity is the creative class theory championed by Richard Florida and illustrated in his work "The Rise of the Creative Class". Florida and his colleagues were able to identify the most successful communities by their capacity to achieve the greatest increase in economic development. (In terms of state's, Florida's group ranked Kentucky 45th out of 50.) Florida aptly illustrates how community economic development has been highly positive in those communities that he considers creative. Such communities possess higher rates of creative occupations, requiring employees to create meaningful new forms. These communities have knowledge based occupations ranging from scientists and engineers to writers and actors. For Owensboro, the caveat of this approach is that traditional notions of what it means to be a close, cohesive community and society tend to inhibit economic growth and innovation. If we were to follow the creative class theory to community economic development, would it mean that we need to encourage locals to not attend church, seek divorce, and become the individual that their creativity inspires?

Where do we go from here?

The most important effort we can do at this time is to simply have the conversation. We do not have to appropriate thousands of taxpayer dollars to any particular initiative. In fact, that may indeed be low on the priority list if we were to establish a sincere strategic plan to achieve development through the approach designed to achieve the greatest results in the 21st century: by promoting creativity. Individuals considered part of the creative class are not necessarily looking for a big payoff in the form of a salary. They are looking for a place to develop themselves, to engage in creative activity, and to live fulfilling lives.

In the spring of 2003, 47 cities convened in Memphis, Tennessee to hammer out a blueprint for communities looking to become creative, and looking to further enhance community economic development in the 21st century. The outcome product of that event was the Memphis Manifesto.

Utilizing their expertise, let us examine some potential avenues of growth for Owensboro by building on their principles, and by linking our past to our present, and ultimately our future. Below I comment on the Manifesto principles, and ask questions where we appear to currently be lacking.

1. Cultivate and Reward Creativity. Do we recognize the new economy, the knowledge based economy in our midst? How do we reward those individuals and organizations that are plowing the ground of invention and innovation?

2. Invest in the Creative Ecosystem: Owensboro has discussed the riverfront development plan, but it appears as the realization of this plan hinges on private and public investment. Do we have enough commitment to bring it to fruition? At the same time John Bays and Zev Buffman are looking for every avenue to increase entertainment, the arts, and to enhance public spaces. How else can we expand this creative ecosystem?

3. Embrace diversity: At current we have a smattering of events associated with racial and ethnic diversity. Do we value these events enough to make them institutionalized? Can they be grown and become defining events for our community?

4. Nurture the creatives: Can we rise about the alternative perception that those with innovative ideas, new thinking, and progressive action garner? How can we advance their energy to do new things, to make our community a better place?

5. Value risk-taking: Is it customary to challenge conventional wisdom? Can we transform the risk of being ostracized into an expected way of thinking, of acting?

6. Be authentic: Do we fully understand our own uniqueness, and how it relates to the region, the state, the nation, the world? We do not have to stray from what makes Owensboro-Daviess County particularly special.

7. Invest in and build on quality of place: Can we continue the efforts of parks and recreation renewal? Can we build on the efforts of the Greenbelt? Will the City Connections Bikeway Project be supported?

8. Remove barriers to creativity: Are we prepared to look inward and recognize patterns of expectations and policy that constrain creative energy? Are we prepared to do things differently?

9. Take responsibility for change in your community: Are we satisfied with mediocrity? What must happen for us to recognize that change is necessary for our communitys survival? When will we know we have achieved it?

10. Ensure that every person has the right to be creative: Will we move beyond community economic development being a function of the local elite? Will the creative energies of everyone have the opportunity to be expressed, to be realized?

We must not assume that we must gauge our rate of creativity based on that of larger or even similar communities. Each community has its own baseline of creativity, and must work to become more creative based on its point of departure. Thus our initial task is to determine where we are, enabling us to plot what our creative community would look like if we embarked on certain goals and objectives. At the same time, we must keep in mind that what we define as innovative or creative for us, may indeed be old news for another community. We must focus on what works best for us, and we must develop ourselves inward looking out, not outward looking in.

Lets assume that we all agree on the generalities posed by the three aforementioned theories of community economic development. We all agree that a stable, more importantly a growing population is key, along with residents feeling a sense of community, and that fostering and promoting creative energy at home, in the workplace, and in the community is a horizon that our community must begin to bring into its purview.

The bottom line is that residents in the most successful communities in this country are waking up to the reality that their lives are more than a steady job and paying bills. Residents want more out of life, and more out of their communities. They are, however, not expecting to get it all for nothing. In fact, they want to be a part of the creativity that makes their community flourish.

Owensboro-Daviess County could indeed be at the early stages of its own little renaissance. While the changes to our local economy have certainly become institutionalized, our reaction to those changes and our methods to move our economy to new niches and specialty has yet been fully implemented. This can be our enlightenment.

As previously mentioned, this certainly has the appearance of being an elite movement of the local aristocracy. We need to assure the citizens of our community that they will not be left out based on their ability to pay the price for the ticket, or whether or not they received an invitation to a private meeting. We can recognize this and work to assure that this new found energy and sense of purpose is at least provided as an opportunity for individual, organizational, institutional, and community growth for all that wish to get on board. This is why the social capital approach will be important for us to maintain in order to make this process inclusive and to make it impact widespread.

A big first step for our community would be to realize that there is not one single approach to community economic development. We simply cannot assume that only raising the level of educational attainment, or increasing the number of jobs, or strengthening the ties of citizens to their institutions of living, or nurturing systems that promote human creativity will single handedly solve or successfully address community economic development. At the same time, our community must come to terms with the very real need to promote community economic development, as a community that is a sum of its equally vital parts. The population in Owensboro-Daviess County is declining. Economic development has a lot to with it. We as a community simply cannot sit still and remain hopeful and optimistic that things will somehow change by the grace of God. Rest assured that things will change. The very harsh reality about our current circumstance, particularly relative to communities of similar size in our state, is that our community population (unlike theirs) is dying.Note: increases in retail sales and a growing market of housing construction, combined with a declining population should be a troubling, early sign of a coming ghost town.

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