Economic development – another big subject

The Council worksession tomorrow night has only two items on the agenda: One item is the EDA’s 2011 budget and workplan; the other is the City’s 2011 budget.  The agenda allots 60 minutes for each topic, but I doubt I’ll get to bed early.

Much of the EDA’s 2010 Workplan is general blather about economic development not linked to any particular initiative the EDA has undertaken.  I doubt it was intended to be used this way, but let’s use the general introduction about defining economic development to evaluate what our own EDA has been doing lately.

Economic development, says the intro, typically focuses on policies and programs in these areas:

  1. Government policies with broad economic objectives including employment, healthcare, sustainable growth, and inflation control (which means expanding the economic base to allow levy rates for the cost of government services to remain stable)
  2. Infrastructure policies and programs that provide services such as basic infrastructure transportation, sewer, water, power, etc. but also what we might call social/cultural infrastructure such as recreation, parks, trails, arts (and I’d add, libraries).
  3. Business climate policies and programs which are probably what most people think of as economic development – specific efforts toward business financiing, marketing, business retention and expansion, and real estate development.

As far as I can tell, the Northfield EDA has focused exclusively on the last one with the business park master plan being the Big Project of 2010 (schedules to be reviewed by the Council in late November) and this has taken place with little discussion of the fiscal impact on the city.

What else could the City and EDA be doing from the first 2 areas?

1. Government policies: We need to answer some basic policy questions which will help drive other, more specific government action.  Here are some that come to mind:

  • what is the role of the city/EDA in economic development and what is the role of private organizations?
  • What proportion of city resources should be devoted to economic development?  What amount should we ask taxpayers to pay (we need to adopt a final EDA levy in December – the preliminary levy adopted in September is $248,952)
  • what proportion should go to direct aid to businesses and how much invested in the substructure which supports all economic activity like roads, broadband, public safety, cultural institutions, etc.?
  • How will we evaluate the costs and benefits – the impact – of specific economic development projects?  What is an acceptable rate of return on taxpayers’ investment?
  • Given the goals of the city and the Comprehensive Plan, how will resources be allocated toward infill and redevelopment vs. new, greenfield development?

2. Infrastructure: I’d like to broaden what counts as economic development in Northfield and this policy area is where it happens.  Though not as obvious or focused as a business park, ensuring that Northfield has a safe, well-maintained, efficient transportation network, excellent public safety, a thriving downtown, a range of housing choices, excellent healthcare and schools, community events and activities, and two fine colleges helps attract and retain businesses, boosts property values, and makes Northfield a very desirable place to live and work.  Given the City’s infrastructure and facilities needs, I’d like to see some serious consideration here.  For a checklist approach, take a look at Community economic development preparedness index developed by the University of Wisconsin for the kinds of things cities should consider.

3 thoughts on “Economic development – another big subject

  1. Betsey: your #2 above is exactly what I would see the EDA Board, as opposed to the CITY’s ED Director focussed on, and then turning over to the CITY’s ED Director to implement.

    There needs to be a very important distinction between these two roles, and so far that has not occurred, and whenever the subject arises the EDA majority, which includes the two Councilors on the EDA Board, C.s Pokorney and Pownell, do not see the importance of a distinction, and will always say that the CITY’s ED Director is the ‘professional’.

    ***Well then, is not the existence of the citizen Board just an observance of a meaningless citizen involvement? and the councilors’ time spent a redundancy? ***

    I would hope that tonight’s council discussion will be of some defining substance, rather than just skirting around the same old staff memos.
    Don’t mean to be disrespectful, but this is approx 250K of taxpayer money…

  2. So Betsey, did the discussion Tuesday night get beyond the “general blather” to particular EDA Initiatives and/or Accomplishments in 2010?

    In particular, I’d be pleased to hear if the Council gave the EDA some direction on the topics you proposed under “Government Policies”, including Roles, Resources, Direct and Indirect Support, Costs and Benefits (oh, will we ever get decent cost estimates…and early enough to shape decision-making…or benefit estimates that include the assumptions and calculations upon which they were based?), or In-fill and Greenfield (and the related cost of infrastructure).

    I’d also be pleased if the topics that you raise under “Infrastructure” (which I would summarize as investing in the maintenance of your more broadly defined existing infrastructure) were mentioned in the same breath as the apparently more sexy (to some) topic of investing in the building of new infrastructure.

    Finally, I wonder if there were any topics besides the new business park discussed under “Business Climate and Programs” such as removing obstacles or adding programs to benefit existing businesses and expanding businesses as well as new or recruited businesses.

    Your link to the U of W Ext. Serv. was interesting and I’ll have to explore it thoroughly some other time. However, I noticed that the introduction stated:

    Your compiled responses will provide a reflection of your community’s readiness to:
    • Retain existing businesses
    • Attract new businesses and residents, and
    • Grow small businesses within your community

    So, I take that to mean that for towns that are serious about community economic development, you must be ready to:
    • Support Existing Businesses
    • Attract New Businesses
    • Expand Existing Businesses

    • The short answer is “no.” At this point, I’d say we’ve lost a budget year and any substantive changes will not happen until 2012. Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, but the message is that rather than having any policy discussion about the EDA (aside from generally agreeing that we needed measurable outcomes or benchmarks of some kind) now, we should wait until 2011 and then sit down with the EDA. This timetable might allow some influence on the 2011 work plan, but we have to approve the EDA levy in December.

      The draft agenda puts the EDA and HRA on the 11/23 agenda (for discussion of their levies, I assume) along with the business park master plan.

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