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On April 24, the City’s Economic Development Committee heard from a public policy expert discussing best practices used to attract and sustain responsible development in municipalities across the country.
Annette Steinacker, director of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at Loyola University of Chicago spoke to the committee at the invitation of City Manager Wally Bobkeiwicz and Community and Economic Development Director Steve Griffin, to discuss how the committee’s work stacked up against similar work in other cities.
Targeting realistic goals was the first of two most significant principles Ms. Steinacker mentioned. “Not every city is Silicon Valley – not every city wants to be, and certainly not every city could be,” she said, adding that every city needs to identify its most lucrative “synergies, which are the policies and projects that give you the best bang for your buck.”
Strong city economies are ones that are both diversified – so that communities do not rely on a single industry – and interconnected. Ideally, businesses access supplies quickly by buying locally and get quick feedback on new products and services from a local customer base. Ms. Steinacker added that communities tend to benefit from competition, “which tends to attract a thick labor market.”
It is also important for businesses to bring in money from outside the community. “The idea is that you bring a dollar in and it circulates,” said Ms. Steinacker. “Sell a good to someone outside of Evanston, and that’s a dollar that comes in that is spent on restaurants, personal services, etc. Anything that can support our tax base is also a useful addition,” she added.
Ms. Steinacker cautioned against trying to attract large-scale national retailers. Their researchers are fast and thorough, so they very often are not in a location already for a particular reason, she said. Instead, municipalities should stimulate development of local businesses that play into the strengths and interests of the community.
Human capital is the second principle, Ms. Steinacker said. Many communities should look beyond just trying to attract college-educated people or courting the much-vaunted “creative class.” Rather, they should also consider whether residents have common skills and knowledge bases at different levels of education. “We don’t all need engineers with post-graduate degrees,” she said.
Cities with healthy economies have numerous clusters of people who network for various reasons beyond work – chambers of commerce, clubs for people with common interests, churches, etc. Ms. Steinacker suggested that the City stoke that potential in Evanston by playing the role of “connector” between some of these networks. “It’s common for people to say the best thing for government to do is get out of the way,” she said, but Evanston can provide neutral information and forums for residents to exchange ideas.
Much of the development work Evanston is doing reflects those principles, Ms. Steinacker said. The City had already targeted five industries where it wants to see growth: technology, water industries, arts and entertainment, health care and businesses that market to baby boomers.
The main criticism Ms. Steinacker – who studied the committee’s strategies, reports, and meeting minutes – had for the committee was a suggestion that they were using numbers that were occasionally too conservative in determining the impact of new jobs.
Businesses that came before the committee often failed to include economic multipliers in their proposals, so they have often “erred on the cautious side,” she said. As an example, she said, a business might mention bringing new jobs to Evanston, but would not figure in jobs that might be created as a result of those new employees’ patronizing Evanston businesses. While the City should engage “a more conservative or realistic assessment,” Ms. Steinacker said, it is important to consider that larger potential.
“When businesses come to you and ask for assistance, you should be evaluating them in terms of how they fit into the overall plan,” Ms. Steinacker added. Many cities take part in bidding wars – offering tax rebates or subsidies, loans, etc. – to attract new businesses without considering whether those businesses fit into an established community strategy. The businesses a city engages “sends a signal about the kind of place you are, so you want to make sure you get the signals right,” Ms. Steinacker said.