Colleges and universities are a critical driver for regional and national development. They are critical to the well being of our nation and the communities that they serve, as much as these institutions depend on vibrant communities and a strong nation for their own success. Deregulation of banks and utilities have weakened the traditional economic development partnership, leaving colleges and universities as the one viable partner that shares and shapes community goals. Colleges and universities have been strong job creators, adding more than 341,000 jobs in the last ten years.
One of the regular questions asked of our firm is “what Fourth Economy projects or reports have been implemented?” While we think all of them have added value and are implemented to some degree, one project stands out. In 2009 Fourth Economy teamed with Clear View Strategies and URS Corporation to conduct a study on Transit Oriented Development (TOD).
The client was the Southwestern Planning Commission in Pennsylvania. The product entitled Future Investment in TOD (or FIT) was a first of its kind report that not only documented the success factors for a TOD but also provided a predictive model for planners and economic developers to determine where and how a TOD development would have the greatest economic impact and success.
In recent months our Fourth Economy team has been hard at work on several town-gown development projects. It’s time to share a few lessons learned. First, if you live in a smaller town and are fortunate enough to have an institution of higher education close by, don’t squander the opportunity to build upon this high value asset – embrace it, leverage it, and cultivate it.
While the many positives associated with town-gown partnerships may be obvious to most of us, surprisingly those positives often need to be clearly identified, communicated and tactically acted upon.
After a three-year hiatus, I returned to teaching Urban and Regional Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon this fall. The process of preparing for the course, and the act of engaging with twenty students who represent a new generation of economic development, has caused me to reconsider the state of the profession and where it is headed as well as what new trends are driving it. I often joke that we are teaching them how to solve the problems of the last generation with tools and policies that will create the problems for their generation to solve. I call it the full employment policy for economic development.
It seems to be college and university season in the Fourth Economy Consulting offices. We have recently welcomed two new staffers to our team with strong roots in working with higher education. In the past few weeks Ali Mabel joined our team as Director of Innovation Strategies. Ali comes to us by way of the University of Illinois where she was Program Coordinator at the Research Park. Prior to that she managed client engagements for Ernst and Young supporting finance and supply chain processes. This mix of private and university experience is a terrific fit with the rest of the team’s skill sets.
Shortly before that Susan Fisher joined us as a Research Analyst and brings to our team her expertise in linear cash flow analysis and her extensive experience conducting complex quantitative and qualitative research, analysis and reporting to health care and higher education projects. Susan adds a depth to our research capabilities that we were looking for and now makes our research capabilities unrivaled in our market.
As an urban planner and a former finance consultant, I am always on the look-out for good planning advice. It seems that a lot of planning guidance is inspiring, but rather inconsistent. Burnham’s famous “Make no small plans,” is often cited during this period of recovery to encourage big ideas. In a session at the April 2013 American Planning Association (APA) conference, however, Joe Nickol of Urban Design Associates recommended that communities “Make no many small plans,” to take advantage of localized, innovative and incremental opportunities for community development. Both approaches are reasonable and valuable, but I am left wondering how communities negotiate between the two, particularly when it comes to aligning with the broader community vision, adapting to market changes, collaborating with stakeholders, and delivering results.
Right now, Fourth Economy is fortunate enough to be working in two communities on private sector-led regional economic development. The first is a group of self-organized group of private sector and higher education leader in the Red River Valley of North Dakota and Minnesota (the major metropolitan areas are Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks). This group known as the Valley Prosperity Partnership is looking in to identify regional economic security interests and leverage the booming energy economy in Western North Dakota. The second community involves a group of private sector stakeholders convened by the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation and the Rhode Island Foundation to inform both the Statewide Sustainable Communities planning and the work of the sponsoring organizations.
Having personally conducted and written more than 75 comprehensive economic impact studies using linear cash flow models for higher education and health care clients over my 16+ year career, I thought it would be interesting to look more closely at how the focus of economic impact reports has changed over the years.
The practice of economic development is like driving using only the side view mirrors – you can’t even see exactly where you’ve been, but you can see the edge of the path you’ve been taking. We try to guide ourselves forward with tools that are built for where we’ve been. Part of this rear-view navigation results from using a lot of tools that were developed to fix the problems of the past. But it is also because we have very little useful predictive information about the future. The majority of economic data is old. If we have any information about what happened even a month ago, it is somewhere between a guesstimate and an approximation of the actual conditions. By the time we manage to collect and verify the best information we can get, it is still incomplete and its shelf-life is expired. Despair.com makes a poster, “Economics: The science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn’t come true today.”
So while we can’t do a very good of predicting where the economy is headed, there are some trends coming up in our side view mirrors that are closer than they appear, or already passing by.