Four strategies every municipal leader should consider as local economies rebound
As vaccination rates rise and the pandemic becomes more manageable, mayors, city administrators and other municipal leaders have their work cut out for them. In the months ahead, local leaders must shift some of their attention from public health to economics—that is, rebuilding Main Street after a year and a half of shutdowns, closures, layoffs and delayed plans.
It’s a tough road ahead—pandemic uncertainty still exists, and public health precautions should still be taken. Ecommerce has become an even more potent force than before, leaving many towns and cities with storefronts and other commercial real estate to fill. Certain sectors—like hospitality—need support to ensure they can adapt to new modes of business and service delivery. And vulnerable groups, such as low-income workers and their families, need access to services that will connect them to opportunity. But there is also good news: Funding from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and other government and charitable initiatives can help local leaders address these challenges.
As municipal leaders gear up to rebuild their economies, here are four strategies to consider:
Reduce barriers to operations and opportunities
Many development firms will tell you that building a project is the easy part—it’s getting the green light that is most challenging. This is true across sectors. From opening a restaurant to implementing innovative public space strategies, the web of regulations, permits and certifications one must navigate can cause initiatives to flounder before they even start. And while these drawn-out administrative processes can have their upsides in ordinary times, these times are anything but ordinary.
In the months ahead, municipal leaders should seek to streamline certification processes, permitting and licensing, so local businesses can more easily open or expand.
This shouldn’t entail cutting any corners—thorough certification is always essential. But the process can be made more efficient. Municipal leaders should strive to make all requirements easy to understand and accessible. Consider publishing clear guidelines on your city website or hosting informational sessions for developers and business owners. Likewise, municipalities can appoint a regulations ombudsman whose sole job is shepherding residents, business owners and developers through the certification process.
Rethink how you use public space
Again, these aren’t ordinary times. Local leaders should try not to limit themselves to “ordinary” ideas of how public space is used. Instead, consider embracing more creative concepts that can speed up recovery efforts.
High-traffic spots in cities—like a central park or riverfront green—are excellent places to get creative. They can accommodate pop-up shops and outdoor events and serve as a community gathering space. These tactics can help local businesses who are struggling with in-store traffic; outdoor shopping is safer and can put consumers at ease.
Municipal leaders should also invest in creative transit options now that the world is starting to move again. For example, refurbished or new bike lines or bike rentals can get consumers moving throughout a city’s shopping districts. Depending on the scale of your ambitions, you can also tap into funding for major transit projects like charging stations, grid updates and other infrastructure for electric vehicle systems. Electric vehicle charging takes time, creating an audience for shops and services in your downtown.
Support your citizens
It’s not enough to focus solely on the brick-and-mortar aspect of recovery. Municipal leaders also need to invest in the most important part of their economy: their citizens.
The pandemic showed us just how important internet access and skills are to an economy—they unlock job opportunities, connect merchants to consumers around the world, and so much more. So, in the months ahead, local leaders must make sure their digital infrastructure, like public and low-cost WiFi, is state of the art and widely accessible. Further, local leaders can equip their citizens for the future by investing in in-demand skills. Take the time to understand what industries are growing in your city—is it graphic design? life sciences? Then roll out programs and incentives to prepare the local workforce for those industries.
By investing in your citizens, you’ll also boost civic engagement. Showing a strong commitment can fuel interest among the public to get involved and unlock local expertise on topics like equity, safety, education and health.
Train providers and nonprofits
Revitalizing a local economy isn’t something government can do alone. It’s essential for municipal leaders to work alongside nonprofits and other service providers. In the months ahead, partner with skilled changemakers on the ground who can support your initiatives. For example, your city may have community organizations that match local workers with new construction projects. Consider them a valuable asset and partner as your city’s workforce and development plans return.
Public-private partnerships can also be an integral part of rebounding local economies. Explore creative financing and funding solutions with trusted private-sector actors in your city.
Navigating the months ahead will be difficult. But with the right strategies, municipal leaders can rebuild their local economies, and even turn big challenges into big opportunities.
Celeste Frye, AICP is co-founder and CEO of Public Works Partners LLC, a WBE/DBE/SBE certified planning and consulting firm specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections across the government, nonprofit and private sectors. For more information, visit www.publicworkspartners.com.