What would an economically healthy Northfield look like?


The Gauntlet, Clint Eastwood version

Mayor Rossing, in her post-meeting conversation on KYMN’s Morning Show on December 8, described the item about the EDA by saying she has challenged the Council to imagine what an economically healthy Northfield might look like.  I’ve been thinking (researching, considering, conferring, talking) about this very idea for at least 10 years so I’m thrilled and delighted the Mayor has thrown down this particular gauntlet especially after she indicated that her own view of economic development was limited to “jobs and tax base.”

(More) Jobs and (increased) tax base are good things which I, too, would like to see, but pursuing these as isolated goals, throwing huge dollars at big projects and subsidizing individual businesses is not how I think Northfield should allocate its (very limited) resources.  I have a bigger vision for an economically healthy community than the Mayor’s and EDA’s rather old-fashioned conception of economic development (I’d call the Mayor and EDA firm Second Wave proponents).  Here are 2 visions

Economically healthy Northfield from 30,000 feet will

  • have a distinctive “sense of place” while being actively engaged in regional collaboration
  • succeed in the global marketplace by building on its local competitive advantages
  • serve the needs of local residents, workers and businesses while working to build social equity and protect the natural environment as interrelated parts of its economy.
  • leverage its resources through strategic partnerships and investments
  • or, more briefly, Northfield will work locally and regionally to build a prosperous, livable community which understands and enhances the economic value of its natural and human capital.

Economically healthy community from inside City Hall (and higher levels of government, too) will be

  • Efficient and adequately consider the economic, social and environmental consequences (the Triple Bottom Line) of its policies and work toward policies which have the least economic, social and environmental cost over the long term.
  • Accountable and working toward policies which assign the true costs and consequences of development to the beneficiaries and evaluate programs and proposals for their effect on the economy, the environment and community quality of life.
  • Consistent with policies which do not contradict or undermine each other and are consistent over time.
  • Transparent to the public where all information not explicitly private is accessible to residents, decisions are obvious, public and well documented; and information from city staff clearly demonstrates how policy leads to recommended action.
  • Recognize the interdependence of decision-making: budget decisions have social consequences, land use planning has tax consequences, spending money on infrastructure means it can’t be spent on environmental protection, bonding for a safety center constrains city finances which impacts the rest of the budget for years to come.

The stuff above is the dreamy, vision-thing.  I’ll try to follow up with subsequent posts and bring these ideas down to earth because I think Northfield already does some of this stuff or has at least included these ideas in their planning documents.  I’ll also try to point out that the dreamy stuff does not entail Big Government, Anti-Growth politics, but a reorientation of how we think about what government does.  I’ll also try to provide a reading list of sorts since I didn’t think up these ideas by myself, but rather they are available in varying forms from many sources.  You can steer the follow up blogging with criticism, questions and comments below.


One response to “What would an economically healthy Northfield look like?”

  1. I think that your characterization of our current economic development leadership as “second wave” is quite generous. In the past 2 ½ years there have been, at least at the upper levels of leadership, few efforts and even fewer resources directed at retaining and expanding existing firms. In fact, rather than creating new financial programs to support business development, one program was closed down and another had its funds redirected.

    In my opinion, there are a few leaders in the community (ironically often in the areas of arts and culture) who recognize the importance of one of the key elements of “third wave” thinking: attracting and nurturing Human Capital. I am hopeful that the new City Council will be more supportive of these leaders and their vision for increasing the economic vitality of Northfield.

    There is also an emerging “fourth wave” group in the community whose goals and objectives for economic development are guided by sustainability. I’m not talking about empty lip-service to “green businesses and jobs” but policies and programs for business expansion and development that are based on existing assets and loans and investments that support and strengthen these assets.

    Finally, I don’t quite understand why the concept of a community’s competitive advantage is “fifth wave”. Way back in 1776, Adam Smith noted that some people or organizations are better at making pins than others. Then back in the early 1980s, Michael Porter’s books, “Competitive Strategy” and “Competitive Advantage”, were popular reading; originally intended for business, these ideas were later adopted by nations and cities. I think an economic development work plan based on a realistic SWOT analysis of the community, instead of a PowerPoint slide show from the consultant du jour, would be a key step in getting Northfield back on track.

    Personally, I think the gauntlet thrown was only half-crafted. Imagining an economically vibrant community is only half the necessary process, you must also plan the actions that will achieve the vision.

    First, I would like to see a more balanced approach to economic development. Such an approach would value and support, through investment of money instead of just talk, as equal priorities: 1) support of existing businesses, 2) recruitment of new businesses, 3) attraction and retention of talent, and 4) assurance of adequate resources, including land, financial tools and reasonable regulatory requirements, for all businesses.

    Second, I would like to see a community economic development strategy that is consistent with the values and priorities of the citizens of Northfield and is based on a realistic evaluation of our community’s assets and the market’s opportunities. In my opinion, such a strategy would focus on strengthening, expanding, and building on our local competitive advantages in knowledge-based industries such as education, health care, and design.

    Third, I would like to see the creation and implementation of the economic development strategy to be directed by the private sector. After seven years serving a substantial role in Northfield’s economic development, I have been deeply disturbed by efforts over the past two years or so to reduce private sector input and to limit decision-making to less than a handful of public sector individuals.

    Finally, I would like to see Northfield’s economic development leadership lose what I perceive to be a myopic obsession with real estate acquisition, ownership, and development. Supporting private sector initiatives, with well-leveraged resources, efficient and effective review processes, and a reasonable regulatory environment, is far more effective, and affordable, approach to fostering economic vitality, than the public sector trying to usurp the role of the private sector.

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