April 22, 2024

Do Our Leaders ‘Feed The Entrepreneurial Spirit?’

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There used to be a saying, “Build it and they will come.” “They” being the businesses and industries that would create jobs, helping a community grow and prosper. Today, a very different reality governs economic development. It’s about creating a community in which people want to live and raise a family.

People have choices. For every person seeking a job, there are at least three openings. Higher wages and benefits aren’t the only draw that brings someone to our communities.

And, no matter how low your taxes are, if your community isn’t attractive, doesn’t provide housing and daycare, doesn’t have good schools, and doesn’t offer recreational and entertainment options, it’s not going to grow. It won’t keep its current residents or attract new ones.

Doug Griffiths has studied and spoken about community development for nearly 20 years. Griffiths is the president and CEO of 13 Ways Inc. and the co-author of “13 Ways to Kill Your Community.” He specializes in helping communities find what makes them successful. He has seen what holds them back and what drives them forward. No template or magic solution can be applied to all communities. But forward-thinking and united leadership are essential in all those that are succeeding.

There are three different kinds of priorities at play for local elected leaders: There are community priorities, government priorities, and individual priorities.

In a community of 2,500 people, Griffiths worked with a mayor who proudly spoke of his city’s $5 million in savings in the bank. He told Griffiths it would be his legacy when he left office.

“We walked out of the building and pointed out that half the streetlights are burned out, your main street’s dead, and it looks like nobody lives here. Is that your legacy?” Griffiths asked.

The mayor responded that he wanted the reserves used for a “rainy day.” When local leaders say they are saving money for a rainy day, they sometimes fail to recognize they are standing in a downpour. Public buildings are run down, people have nothing to do after work, the education system needs support, there is a lack of housing for workers, and families are desperate for childcare services.

The longer a community delays investing in its future, the more expensive it gets. Projects double and triple in price. At the same time, the community loses businesses and population, pushing the tax burden onto fewer homes and businesses. 

 At economic development meetings, we constantly talk about nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit. We encourage innovation. At times, however, those serving on public bodies are the ones who lack the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit needed to make a community more appealing. 

“Economic development and community development must go hand in hand,” Griffiths says.

For that to happen, leaders need to dump old assumptions about economic development and community growth. One of those assumptions is about the impact of taxes on attracting businesses, residents, and workers.

“All of my numerous meetings confirmed that lowering municipal tax rates is not the economic magnet it used to be,” he writes. “Realistically, it probably never was very effective at doing much more than fostering a race to the bottom as communities lowered their mill rates to beat their neighbors to become the ‘cheapest’ community. We get what we pay for.”

In reaching this conclusion, Griffiths spoke with “economic development officers, chambers of commerce executives, and officials involved in selecting sites for businesses. Every one of them in every place I visited confirmed my suspicions that out of the five factors that determine whether a person or company will invest in your community, taxes ranked fifth. Dead last.”

What was more important? Good infrastructure – drinking water quality, streets and sidewalks in good repair, and communities that look attractive rather than run-down from a lack of maintenance. Workforce housing was more important. The quality of life in the community ranked higher. Local governments collaborating with one another and supporting regional efforts ranked higher.

Older business owners want to find the person or family that will take over for them, but how do we get that next generation of ownership to have faith in the community’s future and its ability to support their investment? They must see the community is energized to constantly improve itself. They must see it growing, not simply managing its slow decline. 

At times, our leaders and citizens find themselves contradicting themselves. They complain about high taxes, but say young people aren’t moving to our communities. They complain about taxes, but say our schools need to be better. They complain about taxes, but say our town or county is dying because there is not enough for people to do after work. They complain about taxes, but say our streets aren’t maintained. They complain about the quality of life declining in our communities, but aren’t willing to invest in the actions that change that reality. 

Sometimes, leaders abdicate their leadership role by seeking public confirmation before acting, even when they know what needs to be done. They become roadblocks to needed actions if the winds of public opinion don’t strongly blow in a supportive direction.

Praise from like-minded supporters will get you a pat on the back, but is that ego boost your goal or is what is best for the community more important?

 Civic literacy is at an all-time low. People aren’t paying attention. It’s hard to get high-quality input from people who aren’t paying attention, aren’t educated on the community’s challenges, and haven’t studied the potential solutions. This reality demands leaders who are confident in pushing forward with needed community development projects.

“Communities that invest in themselves can better keep and attract the people who energize communities and create new businesses,” the Center for Rural Affairs says. “Feed the entrepreneurial spirit…” if you want to “stop losing people, businesses, jobs, and vibrancy,”

As a leader, do you “feed the entrepreneurial spirit,” or do you undermine it? Are the consequences of your actions building for the future or managing decline?

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