An article about economic development written by Heartland General Manager Mike McDowell was featured in the January issue of Prairie Business Magazine. The article, “General observations of rural economic development,” can be found on Prairie Business Magazine’s website or read in its entirety below.
General Observations of rural economic development
Economic development efforts in rural communities are not a ‘one size fits all’ process.
What works and is appropriate depends on a number of factors unique to each community. I serve on the governing board of the local development agency for Madison and the surrounding area known generally as the Lakes Area. As is common, this agency is a private/public partnership to support creation and expansion of jobs and wealth. Much of the support for these agencies, including the one I have volunteered to serve, comes from private donations from local businesses and individuals. For example, in addition to our support of Madison, Heartland provides support for similar efforts in all of the communities we serve in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa.
There are a number of factors that impact local development efforts. These factors include, but are not limited to: 1) proximity to an urban area; 2) location on or near an Interstate or other multilane highway; 3) adequate water, sewer, and energy infrastructure; 4) educational facilities, including a university or college; 5) housing choices for employees of new or expanding local businesses; 6) public access to recreational facilities such as parks, hiking trails, and community centers for all ages; 8) broad band communication technology infrastructure; and 9) cultural and retail amenities commensurate with all of the above. Many of these factors require local commitment and support if they are to be useful tools for development.
Omitted from the above list are various incentives offered nearly everywhere as recruitment and/or expansion tools used by local development agencies. These incentives are a necessary part of the local development tool box in order to compete with surrounding communities and states with similar incentives. However, without the existence of the quality of life factors listed above these incentives have a limited impact.
The 800 pound gorilla in every community is the performance of the national economy. Although each community will have its own specific impacts, a faltering national economy leaves no place immune from its effects.
The local Madison/Lakes Area development agency is coming to the end of its first five year funding program aimed at creation of jobs and wealth. The collapse of the national economy in late 2007 was a major contributing factor in moving some of our goals beyond reach. We did some things well, some things not so well, and missed on some things that needed attention. Our recent efforts assisting the expansion of four local businesses and one new business resulted in adding 100 new jobs in the past year. On the other hand, growth of the total local job numbers from five years ago did not occur. Although we pursued new retail growth in lodging, clothing, and restaurant business, that also did not occur. The core area of Madison has declined in recent years and we intend to address that decline in the next five year program.
We spent a good deal of time last fall seeking out business and community leaders’ views as well as their suggestions for the next five years. The results of those conversations are being assimilated and a second five year funding effort will begin in early 2012 based on revised goals and objectives coming from those conversations.
Local development agencies earn and keep support and trust by building on successes and learning from failures, as well as demonstrating a willingness to revise goals and objectives based on feedback from community and business leaders. It is often easier said than done to seek this feedback and then act on it, but a commitment to improved quality of life and broad based creation of wealth trumps ease. Economic development is often two steps forward and one step back. The key is to keep moving.
by Mike McDowell, General Manager and CEO of Heartland Consumers Power District.