The 3 Ls of Collaborative Economic Development

In 2015, Fourth Economy had the opportunity to work with economic development stakeholders in Butler County, PA to develop a new system for delivering county-wide services. Ultimately, we recommended an organizational structure and defined partnership roles based on our process of stakeholder engagement and best practice research.

Now, over 3 years later, the Butler County Growth Collaborative is taking shape! I sat down with Dr. Nicholas Neupauer, President of the Butler County Community College and a member of the Collaborative’s advisory board, who is the primary convener of the Collaborative, to learn what it takes to create a new model of collaborating around economic growth (spoiler alert: it’s leadership!).

1. Leadership

While our work with the Butler County Growth Collaborative began in 2015, the desire to create a more coordinated approach to economic development was years in the making – since 2009. However, earlier efforts were “bottom up” in their approach, minus ultimate support at the County Commissioners level, leading to the classic plan on the shelf. But as new Board of Butler County Commissioners were elected in 2015, there was an opportunity to try again.

Fortunately, this new Board of Commissioners (Osche, Geyer, and Boozel) shared this vision for greater collaboration and coordination on economic development. Such support was the missing piece that allowed over a decade’s worth of work to move the concept forward.

…There was a clear leader to establish roles, make decisions, and identify shared priorities around which to work.

2. Leadership

With the Commissioners leading the way, Butler County hired a full time director for the Butler County Growth Collaborative. The former CEO of a steel company, Mark Gordon was the right person for the job. Because the Collaborative had been functioning as a group of roughly 10 organizations with no clear leader, it was trying to be everything to everyone. When Mark came on, there was a clear leader to establish roles, make decisions, and identify shared priorities around which to work. Furthermore, the Collaborative engaged a third party convener (Bright Lights Innovations of Hermitage, PA) to facilitate advisory board meetings. This helps to ensure that no one advisory member drives the agenda.  

3. Leadership

The organizations on the Board of the Collaborative include leaders from: the Butler County Chamber of Commerce, Tri-County Workforce Board, Butler County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, Butler Transit Authority, Cranberry Township, Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau, Community Development Corporation of Butler County, and Butler County Community College. Most of the individuals representing these organizations have over a decade of experience in their respective positions.

They know each other, they’ve fought hard battles, and while they bring experience, they also bring open minds. Over the years, they have been consistent and gentle champions of collaboration. If someone wasn’t playing along, the others would bring them back on track. And now, thanks to their patience and leadership, the Butler County Growth Collaborative has enough small wins under its belt, that they are taking steps to establish a more permanent and formal structure through which to advance shared economic prosperity for Butler County!

The Inequitable Roots of Home Ownership: Systemic Racism & the Wealth Gap

In March, I was lucky enough to attend a two day Racial Equity Institute workshop. The workshop was dense – covering the creation of the concept of race, implicit bias, and systemic/ institutional racism and how it contributes to the inequitable outcomes we see today. In a future blog post, I will share some things I learned about systemic racism as it pertains to access to work, but today I’d like to focus on home ownership.

One statistic is particularly striking in revealing the scale of inequality impacting people of color today. According to the Census Bureau, in 2014 the median net worth of a white household was $102,800, versus only $9,590 for a black household. Equity in a home comprises the majority of the wealth; excluding equity in a home, the median net worth of a white household is only $33,570, and that a black household drops to $3,339. Hispanic families fare only marginally better, with a median net worth of $17,530, which drops to $6,253 absent home equity.

The history that the Racial Equity Institute covered illuminates how largely our government policies have led to that situation. This is important history to keep in mind as we work to develop new programs and policies to create economic opportunity, and as we try to explain to stakeholders why we have an obligation to redress the impacts of these policies. While the history is vast, here are three key points.

1. It all starts with land, and all of the major programs to initially settle our country were off-limits to people of color.

The 1785 Land Ordinance Act, which offered 640 acres at $1 per acre, was only available to white people. The nearly 100,000 white people who came to California after the end of the Mexican-American War were allowed to claim and own “free soil”, while slaves and free black people were banned from doing so. Additionally, the 1862 Homestead Act, which gave citizens 160 acres of land for free if they would farm it for five years, was not available for Blacks and Native Americans. According to Lui et al. in The Color of Wealth, an estimated 46 million Americans living today are descendants of Homestead Act beneficiaries.

2. The housing programs that fueled post-war wealth generation, were also largely inaccessible to people of color.

Of the approximately $120 billion in new housing financed by the VA and FHA by 1962, 98 percent of it went to white home owners. In part, this was because beginning in 1933 with redlining and continuing with racially restrictive covenants (outlawed in 1968, but still in some cases on the books), people of color were restricted to certain neighborhoods – neighborhoods in which banks would not lend. If you haven’t looked at the redlining map of your city to compare it to present-day conditions, check this out.

3. Systemic racism continues to influence access to homeownership and wealth.

The Recession disproportionately impacted people of color. In December 2011 the US Department of Justice announced a $335 million settlement with Bank of America/ Countrywide for its predatory practices that targeted black and Latino households. The settlement noted that between 2004 and 2008 roughly 200,000 African American and Latino borrowers were charged more for their mortgages than were similarly qualified white borrowers.

Of course, the picture is much more complex than this blog post can convey. If you want to learn more, PBS has compiled a list of resources on race.

And we are always interested in learning more, ourselves! So please reach out with thoughts, resources, or questions: engage@fourtheconomy.com.

How We Got 350 Farmers to Help Us Shape the Future of WV’s Agriculture Economy

Okay, not all 350 of them were actually farmers, but they were all related to the agriculture economy in some way: managers of farmers markets and farm-to-school programs, backyard gardeners with big dreams, and folks who run processing and distribution businesses.

The WV Department of Agriculture and WVU Extension knew that for their strategic plan to be successful they needed to engage stakeholders across the state’s 14 conservation districts in defining the agriculture economy’s challenges and developing solutions. They also recognized that the timeline and budget constraints that would make that level of engagement a challenge presented an opportunity: agency staff were craving the chance to enhance their facilitation skills.

Over the years, Fourth Economy has refined our approach to “Build Sessions”. Borrowing from the human-centered design method, stakeholders brainstorm, prioritize, and build strategies to address the challenges identified through the process. In order to deploy Build Sessions across 14 community meetings in 2 weeks, Fourth Economy developed a facilitation training for 25 staff of various ag-serving agencies and institutions.

Held in September, the half-day training covered general facilitation best practices such as neutrality, consensus, active listening, summarizing, staying on task, and transforming conflict, as well as exercises to practice facilitating a Build Session. The trainings were a big success. After the training, one participant was so excited to try out her new skills that she actually moved her vacation to be able to facilitate one of the community meetings!

Across the state, meetings were held in churches, fire halls, and fairground buildings. Agency staff were amazed at the number and diversity of folks who showed up to participate in the process. The Build Sessions generated lots of conversation and great ideas, and ultimately fed directly into the creation of the strategy. Last month we met with the WV Agricultural Advisory Board to present the strategy and they commented that the sessions sparked a whole new level of collaboration among stakeholders across the state. To us, that is a testament to the power of a truly participatory process.

If you are looking to do something similar, here are our top three tips:

Help participants be prepared to generate good ideas.

Overall there were 10 topic areas that we were looking for stakeholders to help us develop strategies around, but we could only facilitate Build Sessions around 3 topics at each meeting. Therefore we had participants vote on what they wanted to discuss as part of their RSVP. Even if their topic wasn’t selected, they were coming to the meeting with a clearer idea of the specific topics at hand. For each topic area our team prepared a white paper detailing what we already knew about the issue. Each Build Session started by reviewing the white paper so that all participants were on the same page. Finally, we designed the facilitation materials to help prompt participants to think of different types of interventions.

It doesn’t matter how good you are a facilitating if you don’t capture people’s ideas.

Ensuring that you have adequate capacity to serve as a scribe and/or a process for participants to capture their ideas on paper is key. Especially if your facilitators are relatively inexperienced, you can’t expect them to also be taking notes. What’s more, you need an efficient process of compiling all of the notes from a session so that they can be easily translated into a strategy document.

Don’t forget to share.

After the meetings, meeting notes were shared on a public website that we designed specifically for the planning process. Throughout the process we used the website to advertise opportunities to engage and share what we had learned. We also had great support from the communication and marketing departments of all of the agencies involved. This was critical to the transparency of the process, as well as to stimulating ongoing conversation and collaboration.  

DIY Comp Plan (With a Little Help From Your Friends)

What do you imagine when you hear the words “comprehensive plan”? Hoards of consultants descending upon your community for years, churning out meaningless data, hosting pointless community meetings, and producing a mammoth document that goes to live on the shelf? Well, not in Gary, IN. Gary is taking a different approach to comprehensive planning, and Fourth Economy is excited to be along for the ride.

While Fourth Economy is part of a team of consultants, including Raimi + Associates, Volte Strategy, and Dynamo Metrics, we are just the behind-the-scenes support team. The folks at Gary’s Department of Planning, Redevelopment, and Zoning issued an RFQ looking for “a team of thinkers” with demonstrated “ability to provide services and creative solutions in a highly complex urban setting where social equity, economic parity, and community resiliency are foundational elements of the comprehensive planning process.” All small firms, we are providing our expertise, but not according to any set process. Rather, this will be a truly iterative process, guided by the vision and priorities established by the community.

Though the team at the City, led by the inimitable Joe Van Dyk, will be leading the process themselves, they don’t expect to be the face of it. They are pulling together a team of residents and community leaders who will develop and implement all of the engagement. This means that our role as consultants is simply to create the tools and convey the data in a way that the community can truly own.

Recently, Joe kicked off the process by inviting all of the consultants to Gary for two days of listening. We met with faith-based social justice advocates, neighborhood champions, and movers and shakers of every sort. It was truly exciting to hear the passion that everyone has for their city and to see the investments they are making in Gary’s future. We are honored to be able to play a small role in shaping that future and are certain to learn a lot along the way, which we look forward to sharing!  

 

Three Things to Know When Developing an Aquaponics Project

Fourth Economy recently completed a feasibility study for an aquaponics facility designed to provide fresh produce and fish in a food desert. Through our work with programs like Invest Health, we know that there are many communities out there interested in similar projects. If that sounds like you, here are three things to know.

Because the world of community and economic development is so broad, our team supports organizations that are addressing a myriad of challenges and opportunities: reforming vacant land policies; growing emerging industries like ed tech; coordinating workforce development systemsthe list goes on! This year, we had the opportunity to support a community trying to develop an aquaponics facility to provide fresh produce and protein in a food desert. Through our work with programs like Invest Health, we know that there are many communities out there interested in similar projects. Based on our feasibility study, here are three things you should know:

Know Your Fish

There are real limitations in a commercial aquaponics facility’s ability to operate without incurring a net loss on the fish-rearing portion of the facility. Despite the cost savings represented by the considerable water conservation benefit, at the core of this issue is a low share of fixed costs relative to variable costs, which limits opportunities for economies of scale. In other words, producers in many industries can save money at higher volumes because the fixed costs (e.g. facilities, utilities, and equipment) are high but the actual cost of producing one additional units (i.e., more fish) are low. Unfortunately, in a commercial aquaponics facility, the cost of producing one more pound of food is high. The fish, feed, growing medium, staff time, and supplies needed for growing and transporting the food all influence the cost of production. Fish need to be checked on often, pH levels need to be balanced, fish needs to stay cold on its way to market, and water needs to be drained often enough to ensure the roots can get oxygen during growth. Managing these systems requires serious expertise.

Among fish raised in commercial aquaponics facilities, tilapia are by far the most common and highest revenue-producing choice because they can be harvested more frequently and are not as sensitive to their conditions as many other fish, including catfish and bass.

Know Your Community

Of course you know this already! But it’s tough to make these projects work, and the more you can do to engage your community and partner with other organizations and initiatives, the easier it will be. Are there other underutilized commercial kitchens you can use for processing? What products are doing well at farmer’s markets, and what is in short supply? Are there community or education organizations that could provide volunteers? Who else is using an aquaponics system, and how can you complement and learn from them? These questions should be asked early in the feasibility process, and potential partners should be engaged to help ensure the success of your project.

Know Your Buyers

If you want to sell to grocery stores, schools, or other commercial or institutional buyers, there are a number of considerations. The following is true of most, but not all, buyers:

  • You must be GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified.
  • The fish must be butchered; this requires special facilities and perhaps adherence to additional codes and regulations.
  • You must adhere to specific packaging and delivery requirements (for example, will you need access to refrigerated trucks?).
  • You must have liability insurance.

The good thing is that there are often resources to support new producers. Food hubs, Agricultural Extension offices, and increasingly-specialized incubators (like this one!) often provide training and technical assistance.

Despite the financial and operational challenges associated with aquaponics, these systems continue to gain popularity due to their ability to transform underutilized spaces into production sites for fresh food, spurring community and economic development. Hopefully considering these variables will ensure that your aquaponics project is a success!

The Challenge of Creating Actionable Plans

Burket-Blog-Web-05-2016As part of our work in our hometown of Pittsburgh, we have been digging into all of the plans that have been created over the past five years or so. So far, we’ve found around two-dozen plans, reports, or studies on all manner of community, workforce, and economic development topics. Of those, about five have well-articulated goals, actions, responsible parties, though the form and detail of those components varies from plan to plan. And even with detailed actions, the degree to which those plans are being implemented varies a great deal. Our experience in Pittsburgh is not unique – we see the same trend in the other places that we work. So why is it, that despite our best wishes and intentions, it is so hard to create actionable plans? Continue reading “The Challenge of Creating Actionable Plans”

What Is Not Being Addressed that Will Kill Your Economic Development Strategy

BooksforBlogAt this point I think we are all familiar with the struggles facing Detroit Public Schools, at least on the surface: mushrooms growing in schools, teacher strikes, financial crisis. However, as detailed by this incredibly thorough and thoughtful report by LOVELAND Technologies, 200 years worth of poor decision-making led Detroit to where it is today. This speaks to the need for a new approach to public accountability in our education system. Recognizing the critical role of public education to economic development, in Nashville, it has been the Chamber that has been stepping up to provide that platform for accountability by conducting annual holistic assessments and concrete recommendations for improvement. Continue reading “What Is Not Being Addressed that Will Kill Your Economic Development Strategy”

Education Innovation

Remake-LearningI think that few among our readers would argue that fostering an innovative K-12 education ecosystem plays a critical role in economic development. Employers and economic development officials from any industry will tell you that the critical skills for a modern workforce begin at the K-12 level. They will also tell you that attracting and retaining their current workforce means creating a community in which employees want to live, and education is a major factor in creating livable communities. However, influencing K-12 education to ensure that it’s creating an intelligent and creative next generation workforce often feels like an overwhelming challenge given the systemic barriers. Continue reading “Education Innovation”

Increasing the Economic Impact of Trails

Economic-Impact-Trails

Across the country, communities are beginning to understand the economic value of developing trails. Though trail advocates and economic development organizations still often speak different languages, they are beginning to speak a shared language of talent attraction, tourism, and business development.

Different types of trails offer different economic opportunities. Continue reading “Increasing the Economic Impact of Trails”

Preparing your Local Economy for Climate Change

Climate-Change-&-Economic-DevelopmentMany state governments have devoted a great deal of resources over the past decade to mitigating and responding to climate change through energy and urban planning related efforts. Planners and energy experts are fluent in the language of sustainability, adaptation, resiliency, and mitigation. But ask an economic development official what climate change means to them and it’s possible that they can barely utter the word. Many in the business community have feared that climate change will simply mean more costly equipment upgrades to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In too many communities, time is still spent debating the veracity of climate science instead of recognizing the impacts already occurring. Economic development officials have a responsibility to help businesses understand the greater implications of climate change – how they can protect themselves from the effects of climate change; how they could develop new products or services in response to climate change; and how they should prepare themselves to recover from climate-related events. Continue reading “Preparing your Local Economy for Climate Change”