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Hitting the Reset Button: How to Pivot the Perception of Economic Development

Economic developers are playing an important role in helping businesses to navigate the COVID-19 crisis, and their use of incentives to solidify relationships should not be shunned.

Q2 2020
While it had been building for a few years, in the months leading up to the economic shutdown prompted by the COVID-19 crisis, economic development around the country was on the ropes. Certain cities — including Austin and Nashville — had made the decision to no longer offer incentives. Governing bodies were asking why they needed to continue to support economic development marketing and training when unemployment hovered around 3 percent. News of corporate expansions and relocations was disappearing from the front page headlines, if it got noticed at all. We all thought prosperity would continue forever.

Although history teaches us that the economic cycle is never dead, and for every up, there must be a down, no one saw the economic crash that we have experienced since early March. With now nearly 40 million people having filed for unemployment and businesses shuttered (many forever), uncertainty rules the day. As a result, it would be easy to assume that economic development has also ground to a halt.

Fortunately, it has not. Site selection efforts continue. Supply chains are being reshaped by this crisis, which is creating new opportunities. Despite recent tensions, international trade will resume and will continue to grow. Low energy prices will also help. While the pain of the crisis is real, most agree that it is short term, and when we emerge on the other side, new jobs and new investments will occur.

If there is one bright spot coming from this crisis, however, the importance of the business community to not only our economic prosperity, but also the functioning o our daily lives should now be apparent to everyone — public officials and citizens. We all depend on businesses for our food, our entertainment, our shelter, and our livelihoods. When they are shut down, so is society. While government spending can provide a bridge to carry us over troubled waters in the short term, restarting and then growing the economy is the only way we will ever get back to normal. While government spending can provide a bridge to carry us over troubled waters in the short term, restarting and then growing the economy is the only way we will ever get back to normal.

And it is the economic development community that will be central to this effort. Even during the crisis, it has been our economic development professionals who stepped up to help closed businesses navigate the new guidelines and rules. They helped identify funding sources to keep businesses afloat and to navigate new tax and permitting processes. They have also worked closely with stakeholders in the healthcare sector on appropriate protocols to get businesses open again.

Instead of retrenching and fading back into the shadows, now it is more important than ever for economic developers to educate everyone on the importance of what they do. They need to ensure that they don’t back away from important investments in developing new sites, enhancing talent pipelines, and supporting entrepreneurs. And, finally, they cannot shun the use of incentives to help solidify partnerships with new and expanding businesses.

Sometimes it takes a crisis to get to a reset, so let’s all take advantage of this opportunity to take economic development to the next level.

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