The plan to remake Akron should build on existing strengths

With Mayor Dan Horrigan settling into city hall, there has been much talk about Akron’s “new day,” and enthusiasm around bringing fresh perspective to economic development.

And then comes the hard part: determining the best next step. What actions will create enduring community prosperity? A look at some of the communities that have enjoyed success reveals that well-conceived, strategic economic development efforts can indeed have a significant positive effect, uplifting the collective assets in a geography, stimulating private markets and catalyzing smart growth around high-potential clusters.

But for each example of effective economic development, you’ll also find five examples of good plans gone bad.

So what can Akron learn from the graveyard of economic development ideas?

Pass on smokestack chasing

For many years, economic development was all about chasing individual firms in the pipeline, and using tax-based incentives to lure them in, a deal at a time. While attraction activity certainly plays a role in economic development, history has shown that many enticed firms move on to the next community, to the next set of enticements.

Additionally, when attracted firms do not fit well within an area’s cluster ecosystem, they are not likely to thrive. Thus attraction devolves into a reactive game of whack-a-mole — chasing one deal here, one deal there — and tends to produce short-lived victories, if any.

Narrow efforts miss the mark

The Brookings Institute’s recent report, “Remaking Economic Development,” aptly summarizes: “in too many communities, the practice of conventional economic development remains focused solely on top-line growth, while the bottom-line prosperity is deemed someone else’s responsibility.”

Stated another way, we must move past the days when economic development professionals could ignore unemployed and underemployed citizens, labeling them a “social services issue.” Quality economic development efforts intentionally connect job creation and firm expansion to workers, not because of a moral imperative, but because the economy prospers where businesses can access ample talent and employed people can afford to buy goods and services.

Dodge the silver bullet

We’ve all heard “there is no silver bullet.” This sentence is often followed by a proposal that looks a lot like a silver bullet. There are dozens of examples of major projects — with malls and arenas leading the pack — that were billed as economic development superheroes.

The results are in: while consumption-driven big plays are relatively easy to pull off — with a beginning, a middle and a ribbon-cutting end — they simply do not generate the authentic economic growth of a long-term, production-focused strategy.

So Akron, let’s shape a brand of economic development that builds on our assets — the strong firms and businesses already here that can grow and expand, the industry clusters where we have a competitive advantage in our human and innovation resources, our knowledge of how to make things. Let’s be intentional about connecting business growth to Akron workers.

Christine Amer Mayer is president of the GAR Foundation.