Economic development more important than ever
Lee Lewellen, Indiana Economic Development Association
Indiana launched into 2020 with the unemployment rate in many communities hovering at near record level lows of 2% to 3%. A major concern in many communities was the lack of workers to fill current jobs. In response, economic developers shifted from attracting businesses to attracting workers.
It is impossible to calculate how drastic the change has been in four short months. Economists project that unemployment rates will hit double-digit levels, perhaps approaching rates not seen since the Great Depression. Over 26 million American jobs have been lost, effectively canceling all job gains since the Great Recession. Local stakeholders fear that much of the progress they have made in the last few years to grow local business, enhance downtown development and increase the tax base will be threatened as revenues from various taxing sources will see shortfalls.
In flush times and lean, the practice of economic development is focused on attracting, expanding and retaining investment in communities. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, economic developers were diversifying their services by working with local businesses to help fill open jobs with qualified workers, collaborating with chambers of commerce and tourism bureaus to promote community assets to attract new residents and workers to their communities and working to support local entrepreneurs in starting and growing their businesses. The evolution of economic development extended to downtown development because vibrant downtowns are key to attracting and retaining talent.
Fostering single-family and multi-family housing stock became a priority for talent attraction. This effort to develop workforce housing led to communitywide collaborations between economic developers, elected officials and housing developers, who came together to solve unique housing challenges in communities across the state. Many economic developers have focused on expanding childcare solutions, as well: high quality and affordable child care contribute to our quality of life and workforce engagement.
The work of economic developers is constantly evolving because they are reacting to the unique needs of their communities. What works in one region or county may not work in another, so our connections across the state allow for sharing best practices and the ability to bring new ideas back to our communities that are tailored to local and regional needs.
As we emerge from the current crisis, communities will be faced with many displaced workers and closed or struggling businesses. Local economic development organizations will be the natural leaders helping our state recover because they know the local businesses, understand their workforce needs and are experts in attracting and retaining tax base: all critical activities in helping communities claw back from the coronavirus crisis.
At last count, at least 21 Indiana-based economic development organizations have played a role in the creation of local disaster relief loan or grant programs to help local small businesses survive during the stay-at-home order. This is another example of their understanding of local business needs and their ability to adjust their priorities to respond to the needs of their communities.
In the last few years, economic developers have become more focused on supporting entrepreneurship, encouraging the creation and growth of home-grown businesses, exactly the kind of support and expertise that will be needed to revitalize our downtowns post-coronavirus crisis.
Economic development professionals have developed national networks of business contacts that they work with when companies want to expand or relocate. These networks can help bring suppliers to a community to support existing companies. While supporting our existing businesses will be the first priority, the attraction of new companies to the state will be an area of focus as we move to fully recover lost jobs and tax base.
As we look toward the future of Indiana, we should all find comfort in knowing that economic developers are on the front lines and are ready to evolve again to move their communities out of crisis and into recovery.
Editor’s note: Lee Lewellen is president/CEO of the Indiana Economic Development Association.