City governing: A guide to approaching economic growth like a business
As we shift to a post-pandemic world, city leadership is more crucial than ever. Residents and businesses alike depend on their local governance to implement practices that support growth and strengthen the community. Approaching leadership from a business perspective yields more business expansion, retention and synergy within a community—all of which are critical components to a functioning municipality. To achieve these goals, cities must leverage public-private partnerships creatively, take advantage of public feedback and use grassroots marketing to rally public support and engagement.
Leverage public-private partnerships creatively
Similar to how corporations partner with non-profits or other brands to reach their goals, local governments should get creative with who they partner with and how. Partnerships, with the private sector in the case of a local government, increase exposure to different groups and strengthen relationships within the community. To engage the private sector, focus on the issues that affect both businesses and residents, motivating the private and public partners to work together on a solution.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused businesses to close across the country, my team at the City of Sugar Land, Texas, Office of Economic Development and I quickly recognized it had the potential to ravage Sugar Land’s business community but also trickle down to individual residents and, of course, all frontline workers. We created #AllInForSLTX to aid local businesses while engaging the community to provide whatever support they could as well to keep Sugar Land’s economy moving.
The flagship initiative of #AllInForSLTX was Sweet Cash, a gift card reimbursement program that called on hometown shoppers to purchase gift cards from Sugar Land businesses through a “Buy One, Get One” program. Ultimately, the first two rounds of the program injected $100,000 of public investment into the local economy and generated an additional $106,000 of program contributions from individuals, businesses and organizations within the community.
Take advantage of public feedback
Public opinion is a crucial component in identifying the immediate needs of your community. Businesses conduct performance reviews, survey their staff and make decisions based on feedback and evaluation from employees—cities can benefit from adapting these practices to a public model. Opening communication lines by listening to residents shows true, meaningful dedication to positive change and builds trust between local leadership and the public. Local government leaders can use feedback shared by their communities and apply it to long-term planning and decision making, incorporating public opinion when determining the best use of investment.
In the case of #AllInForSLTX, we enlisted our community to pinpoint what they needed most to jumpstart businesses during and after the pandemic. We are working with business owners and residents to stimulate our economy; everyone has a seat at the table. The “Request for Placemaking” initiative, one component of #AllInForSLTX, called upon businesses, property owners and non-profits to submit innovative project ideas that reimagine business development in a post-pandemic world. We wanted to hear directly from our businesses on what they felt were the most immediate needs and find relevant ways to address them.
Through Request for Placemaking, Art Museum TX, a local nonprofit in Fort Bend County, was able to use a previously underused area in one of Sugar Land’s business clusters and open a museum. In a format similar to Request for Placemaking, the “Call for Artists” initiative sought proposals locally and from around the globe that would inspire residents and encourage patronage to local businesses. We opened the program to artists and artist teams worldwide so we could cast a wide net for ideas and receive feedback on how to make our city even more welcoming to everyone. Of the 143 total artist applications, 19 came from the Houston-metro area; the remaining 124 applications came from 30 different states and 10 international locations, providing submissions with diverse, creative perspectives.
Use grassroots marketing to rally public support and engagement
City and other local governments cannot underestimate the value of marketing practices, typically used by consumer companies, to engage their communities and rally public support and participation. Recognize your audience and find creative ways to reach them—traditional tactics like flyers and mailers, digital options like paid advertisements and social media and unconventional options like digital signage or business window decals can effectively get your message across.
Cities are at a great advantage when it comes to marketing—their audiences are hyper-concentrated and a small investment in marketing can go a long way once it catalyzes word of mouth. For this reason, digital content tailored for a local community is likely to garner high engagement and conversion rates, which we saw in action with our promotion of Sweet Cash. We geotargeted Facebook and Instagram ads to Sugar Land and the rest of the greater Houston region. We also tapped into advertising on Nextdoor, a site designed for community updates and conversation, reaching Sugar Land residents on a medium they were already highly engaged with. These tactics helped us reach several different audiences within the community and proved to be very successful.
Grassroots marketing also gives cities an opportunity to share a call to action with community members to encourage participation in public initiatives. Using calls to action in marketing materials can help implement a sense of ownership for your audience. The Sweet Cash gift card program was not just an injection of public funding; we called on residents and businesses to jump in. When your community recognizes the value of their participation, they are more likely to commit to doing their part. Sweet Cash’s success relied on public participation and, by conveying this through marketing, the public went #AllIn.
As we’ve learned over the past year, our communities aren’t complete without thriving businesses, involved residents and an adaptive local government. Approaching goals for your community from a business perspective allows local government to support and involve each of these critical groups more efficiently. As we as local government leaders strive to support our businesses and residents, especially after recent unprecedented difficulties, this approach offers a fresh perspective on how to best serve our communities.
With more than 10 years of economic development experience, Elizabeth Huff has served as the City of Sugar Land’s director of economic development since 2018. She directs the City’s comprehensive and proactive economic development strategy and annual business plan, oversees four primary economic development and tourism divisions within the city and coordinates with various local and regional organizations and partners.