Learning from 2020, a busy year for economic developers
If your community is served by an economic development organization (EDO)—as most U.S. communities are—it’s likely the group played an integral role in responding to the challenges brought by COVID-19.
The International Economic Development Council (IEDC), the largest professional association for economic developers, has been following its members’ responses to the pandemic over the past nine months. Economic development professionals have been burning the candle at both ends as they work to help their communities’ businesses survive, and clearly, the work is far from over. But there’s a silver lining to an otherwise cloudy year: the lessons learned will help EDOs and communities be more resilient to future crises. To capture those lessons, IEDC has produced a series of short videos in which economic development professionals share ideas, advice and successes from this experience.
A key initial role for EDOs is crisis communication. When the pandemic first hit, relationships already in place with the business community made EDOs a reliable resource for business owners and managers to stay current on changing information and regulations, as well as what government assistance programs were available and how to access them.
Crucially, many EDOs raised money for or administered loan and grant programs targeted to small businesses. Some created or promoted buy-local programs. Others offered technical assistance on topics such as diversifying into new products, trying new marketing tactics and expanding into online sales. EDOs also helped businesses that never slowed down, such as grocery stores and providers of other essential services, to quickly find the workers they needed.
Helping companies retool and reinvent themselves was another critical role EDOs played. Many groups made connections between local manufacturers and health-care customers that enabled the businesses to pivot to new product lines such as making personal protective equipment (PPE) or testing swabs. “We know our manufacturing community so well that we immediately became the coordinator of PPE: where was it, was there any, if there wasn’t any, could someone make it?” said Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place Inc., in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Some organizations had the staff and knowledge to provide specific technical assistance to firms. The Development Authority of Great Falls, Mont., coached small business owners on managing cash flow and finding other ways to relieve financial strain. Anticipating an uptick in industry onshoring after the pandemic, the Development Authority in Ponca City, Okla., is helping its companies prepare to capture new opportunities by getting relevant industry certifications.
Other EDOs found themselves playing a central role as a community convener. The Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Corp. partnered with the local health department to form a Regional Recovery Council (including leaders from the city, county, educational institutions, community groups and others) to ensure policies and decisions considered both economic health and public health.
Sadly, COVID-19 wasn’t the only crisis of 2020 to which economic development groups responded. After the killing of George Floyd, the Greater Memphis Chamber brought activists and business leaders together for a series of meetings to discuss the challenges to economic equity for Black residents and how the business community can help solve them. The chamber hosted the conversations, provided data and put accountability measures in place; as a result, Memphis avoided much of the civil unrest that other cities experienced.
In addition to meeting critical community needs, many economic development leaders have faced the challenge of keeping their organizations in the black. EDOs have had to reduce pay, freeze retirement contributions and lay off staff. That’s all while working to keep their board members, investors and community stakeholders informed and involved, keeping their teams productive and motivated, and managing their own stress.
And in some ways, EDOs’ work is just beginning. Economic recovery from the recession likely will be under way for years. Yet economic development professionals are inveterate optimists, seeing opportunity from the multiple crises of 2020 to rebuild stronger, more equitable economies going forward.
“It’s the EDO’s responsibility to talk about the future and what’s possible,” said Kenny McDonald, president and CEO of One Columbus in Columbus, Ohio. “We have a once-in-100-years opportunity to reconstruct our economy in a way that works better for everybody.”
To learn more about EDOs’ responses to the crises of 2020 in their communities, check out the IEDC’s series of briefs and videos on Leading in a Time of Crisis.
Thomas A. Kucharski has served as President and CEO of Invest Buffalo Niagara since 2000. Under his leadership, Invest Buffalo Niagara has grown from a start-up initiative to an innovative regional economic development organization that has secured more than 400 successful project wins representing $6.2 billion in investment in the region and over 45,000 jobs created and/or retained. He is currently serving at the 2021 Chair of the IEDC board of directors, with a focus on structural change and climate change. He is also a member of IEDC’s elite think-tank, the Economic Development Research Partners (EDRP) program, the sponsor of the research highlighted in this article.