Building stronger economies is a core component of what we do as economic development strategists and ideas generated to advance and position an economy for growth differ region to region. To some, a “stronger economy” may mean scaling businesses and/or affordable housing. To others, it may mean investing more in transportation or all of the above. Variance aside, an increasingly common variable we’re finding in our work is a focus on inclusive economic growth.
According to Brookings Institute’s “Opportunity for Growth” report, cities are a critical scale at which to address barriers to and foster greater economic opportunity for workers, firms and local economies. So, if you’re wondering how you can tackle inclusive growth for your city or region, think about your most critical local assets and economic drivers. Think: neighborhood business districts (NBDs), those corridors or hubs of small, boutique shops often anchored by a grocery store and centered around day-to-day convenience shopping needs of residents. NBDs present a unique advantage for cities thinking about how to build wealth for residents, concentrate local jobs, and even increase safety and livability.
Here’s some food for thought:
• Entrepreneurship has been a proven model for financial empowerment and economic mobility, but is most difficult to achieve for residents in poor communities. Investing in NBDs enable areas to reimagine vacant or underutilized spaces for entrepreneurship activity to support local entrepreneurs’ ability to learn, test new ideas, and scale operations.
THINK: Entrepreneurship for All and their efforts to advance inclusive entrepreneurship in local communities in Massachusetts.
• Proximity to jobs and amenities add to a neighborhood’s affordability, particularly as transportation costs make up a large share of expenditures for low-income families. Investing in local NBDs not only increases employment opportunities for local residents but also ensures better access to them.
THINK: the Center for Neighborhood Technology Housing and Transportation Index proving that where neighborhoods are location-efficient, they’re affordable.
• Homeownership is an essential path toward opportunity and wealth building. These assets suffer in poor communities where low home/property values, due in part to the quality of the neighborhood, exists. Investments in NBDs over time – i.e. building renovations and streetscape improvements – reduces blight and vacancy, increases community value and benefits local residents looking to buy, own or sell in the area.
THINK: Brookings recent “The Devaluation of Assets on Black Communities” report.
• Investing in businesses within NBD’s increases tax and municipal revenues, making available additional resources for an area’s infrastructure and public service needs.
THINK: Smart Growth America and how walkable urban development and other smart growth strategies are helping to boost tax revenue.
Building capacity to revitalize a neighborhood business district is no easy task. Yet, with due diligence, a city and region serious about inclusion can develop strategies centered on building NBDs that are economically viable, resilient and sustainable. In return, economic outcomes are not only strengthened but also guaranteed to reach people and places that need it the most.
I recently participated in the State Science and Technology Institute annual conference. These conferences are always a great chance to connect with peers around the country but also to reflect on what is ahead for us all. It was exciting to see a diverse group and a significant number of first-time attendees. This is a great demonstration of new energy in the organization and the network of people looking to make a difference.
As I traveled home I started to reflect on three takeaways that I want to explore more as I reflect on the past year and look to 2019.
First, we are not doing enough! There was a healthy amount of commentary and discussion on the reality that while some of the simple economic indicators are positive, the vast majority of the underlying data – especially the indicators used to look at the future – education attainment, indebtedness, net financial worth, poverty rates, climate change, etc. are all really bad. We can not get distracted by the soundbites of economic strength, we must focus on the economic stresses that exist at some level in every one of our communities.
Second, we need to collaborate even more! The stresses that our communities face are too much for any one organization to address, but many try. Whether it is the human nature to compete or a sense that financial support for mission-driven organizations is a zero-sum game, I continue to see a lack of collaboration.
Leslie Smith from Epicenter in Memphis and I hosted a breakout session on Network Leadership where we asked participants to role play. While some enjoyed the opportunity to get out of their own persona, many struggled to put themselves totally in the perspective of their role. It is not easy to relate to others, especially when their views about the past and future of a community differ. Our default is to often go back to our comfort zone of peers and own organization. By collaborating more, we gain the perspectives of others, resulting in stronger leadership and better solutions.
Third, we should get together more! In the early days of Fourth Economy, we created this image to represent the drivers and assets of the fourth economy. In many ways, we have been pioneers in ‘preaching’ the virtues of broad-scale collaboration. What I’ve come to appreciate even more is that the People asset can be the greatest, but it can also be the most difficult barrier. If people are not able to build trust, empathy for one another, and a shared understanding of the past and vision for the future, we will not be able to do better. We will see some ride the economic peaks while many more become further from the opportunity. We will question what we could have done to prevent the next economic downturn or to help those in our community.
I’d rather not wait and will look for opportunities to push myself to get together with people in the communities that I work, live, and play to increase my own understanding of their vision and needs. I hope you consider doing the same.
Clairton, Pennsylvania is home to less than 7,000 residents. It is probably best known for being the home of the Clairton Coke Works and was once known as the Coke Capital of the World. It is also known for being the home of the Clairton Bears, the local high school football, which had a 66 game winning streak that spanned 2009 to 2013.
Clairton is one of the Monongahela river towns where the decline of the steel industry hit hard. Tucked onto two hilltops that overlook the river, train tracks, and the coke works, Clairton has seen more than its fair share of losses. More than a decade ago, the last grocery store in town closed.
Now, there is positive momentum. Local residents, working through two committees: The Healthy Food, Social, and Human Services Committee and the Neighborhood Partnership Program Committee guided the development phase and ensured engagement by the residents of Clairton. The effort to get to opening day resulted from the efforts of two nonprofits, Economic Development South and Just Harvest. Funding for the store was provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development’s Neighborhood Assistance Program (funded by BNY Mellon and Highmark), and Bridgeway Capital.
Fourth Economy and Palo Alto Partners were engaged by Just Harvest to assess the financial viability of the fresh foods market planned by Economic Development South. We conducted a needs assessment to identify the areas of highest need in Clairton, combined with an opportunity assessment to identify the areas that would be most accessible to residents. We also conducted an evaluation of local expenditures and competing stores and to assess potential store locations in Clairton. Surveys of residents provided critical insights into what factors would make the store successful. The study estimated the potential sales that could be captured for different offerings. Finally, the study integrated all of these analyses into a business plan and operational model.
The results of our analysis demonstrated that such a store would have a narrow path to sustainable break-even operations. Every scenario required some level of subsidy to overcome early operating losses. As a consulting team, we were downcast that we were not creative enough to find a sustainable, break-even solution. We were dreading when it came time to present the results to our project partners at Economic Development South and Just Harvest.
When we got to final numbers on the cash flow and the break-even projections, we expected to hear something like, “Well, thanks for trying.” We got a very different response instead. Greg Jones of Economic Development South was ecstatic — the numbers were much better than he expected. “We can make this work. This is less than it costs to educate people about food deserts and the lack of fresh produce. If we can actually provide fresh foods at this cost, this is a no-brainer!”
With the opening of Produce Marketplace, at 519 St. Clair Avenue, residents of Clairton will have access to affordable fresh foods all year round. It has been great to see this project come to life. It will be two or three years before we know that the store is sustainable, but the level of community engagement and interest to date provides a good leading indicator of the store’s viability.
When was the last time you visited a public library? How about a Starbucks? As of 2017, it is noted that there are more public libraries than Starbucks in the U.S. I’ve experienced a recent uptick in my library visit frequency. Instead of simply using their printer when mine is on the fritz,I’ve used their resources to successfully kick-start an abandoned community garden, discover local neighborhood assets, and score a free yoga class.
In late July, there was an opinion piece shared by Forbes (that was quickly deleted due to insane backlash), that insisted Amazon could and should replace libraries. Leave it to the librarians to whip up some serious backlash. So it’s obvious that there’s a need for libraries, but why? In both rural and urban areas, libraries are moving away from simply being placeholders for books, and closer to becoming a space that meets unmet society needs through technology innovation, education, and municipal services.
Let’s rewind 20 years…
Maxine Bleiweis’ 1997 publishing of Helping Business- The Library’s Role in Community Economic Development, served as a How-To manual for the library’s role in small business development. Back in ‘97, libraries offered free training courses, aided in workforce development, and began advocating for a strange new gizmo: the internet. In the past twenty years we’ve seen the rise of this online resource, with most library materials reflecting this shift. Many now provide public access technology infrastructure resources and capacity, digital literacy support, and domain-specific services and programs (civic engagement, education, health and wellness, etc). However, states with a high percentage of rural areas still struggle with supporting small and local businesses when their residents lack a reliable and affordable internet connection. It’s 2018, and in every single state there exists a portion of the population that doesn’t have access to broadband.
Libraries to the rescue!
In Missouri, Secretary of State, Jay Ashcroft, is pushing to fund the “Remote Electronic Access for Libraries Program”, which supports the costs of internet access, technical support, and other training services at the state’s public libraries. Ashcroft views the program as a cost-effective way to spread broadband throughout the state”, an issue that many states’ deal with. The roots of the Public Library run deep in supporting public needs beyond provision of paper materials . For example, Andrew Carnegie’s first designated library in Braddock, PA (pictured below), was imagined to be a full service center for working class Americans. It was equipped with billiard tables and a bathhouse to provide mill workers with a place to shower before using the facilities.
Photo circa 1893: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (REPRODUCTION NUMBER: LC-DIG-ppmsca-15382)
In a world where people are paying to get ahead through specialized education such as training programs and certificates, libraries are slowly breaking down the inequality barrier.
In June 2014 the Free Library of Philadelphia launched a Culinary Literacy Center, aimed at revolutionizing the way residents think about food and nutrition while advancing literacy and teaching math through measurements. Over in Connecticut, the Westport Library’s makerspace is equipped with 3D printers which allow users to learn modeling software programs, and robots to teach coding and computer-programming skills. Outside the U.S. exists what is commonly referred to as the gold standard in library innovation, Dokken, in Aarhus, Denmark received the award for best public library in 2016. Patrons can park in the automated, robotic underground parking lot, make use of the lecture halls, and get some fun time in at one of its three on-site playgrounds. Furniture is movable, allowing users to create whatever space they require, a reflection on how libraries function best when listening and responding to community needs. After renovations, visitor counts skyrocketed from 1,800 to 3,800 visits per day.
At a time where inequality is at its highest in the United States, we need more than ever, to embrace potential innovation for societal goods that libraries hold in both urban and rural areas. Whether it be through entrepreneurial and small business support, broadband availability, or being an inclusive space for community engagement, Libraries bring social wealth to communities and subsequently, their economies.
The upcoming revitalization of Braddock Carnegie Library of which Fourth Economy is helping, will allow us to complete a community and economic impact analysis for the library. I’m personally excited about drawing lines from community needs to what the library can offer.
In mid-August, Fourth Economy and the Borough of Ford City played host to developers and investors for an Opportunity Tour.
Fourth Economy has been working with Ford City on their Comprehensive Plan, and this tour was designed to gauge interest and gain ideas for how development might take place on two sites in the community – the former site of Ford City High School and the riverfront that runs between the town and the Allegheny River.
The riverfront is currently home to several different uses – the 36 mile Armstrong Trail starts about a mile away from Ford City and runs the length of the town along the river. Also along the river are several manufacturing firms, some of which have located in the former home of Pittsburgh Plate Glass. At the north end of the riverfront site sits a few uninhabited buildings formerly housing the the Elgier toilet plant.
The Tour began at Klingensmith’s Drug Store, with local leaders greeting their out of town guests, and a quick overview of the comprehensive planning process and the proposed capital improvements plan. After a quick walk around the downtown, tour participants split into a caravan and drove to the southern end of the riverfront, then continued back up, making stops along the way, with property owners along the route to fill in information about each site.
On a clear August day, with a light wind blowing and the sun sparkling off the Allegheny river, tour participants brainstormed about the potential of marinas, riverfront restaurants and residences, and how to repurpose the existing industrial infrastructure.
The next stop was the former high school site, which offers a unique opportunity for development in the center of town.
Down the street from the former high school site, the group gathered at Spigot Brewery for a refreshing happy hour with food provided by Harper’s Grill, a recently opened restaurant that offers burgers made from grass-fed beef.
The tour capped off with a presentation at 10th Street Station, which was attended by residents, town leadership, and tour participants. First, the group heard from Leslie Oberholtzer of Codametrics, about the upcoming process that will result in a new zoning code for the Borough. Then, Jim Kumon of the Incremental Development Alliance explained how starting development on a small scale through rehabilitation of older buildings and spurring small businesses could change the town’s economy.
While the tour ended, Leslie and Jim returned to Ford City the next day to lead workshops in riverfront planning and activating spaces. During the first exercise, the group split into two and cut out different land uses to paste them on a map of the riverfront, an exercise that was useful for envisioning what the space might look in the future.
In the afternoon, Jim Kumon provided several examples of places that had activated uninhabited parts of their towns through markets or recreation, and how that lead to more investment and development. Participants then split into three groups, and brainstormed ideas for how to take the “next smallest step” for the riverfront, the high school site, and the downtown. The riverfront and downtown group went on field trips to survey their spaces, and returned with good ideas and information to share.
Energy is a vital sector and a job generator, but it is also important to understand that there are some real challenges for how the development of energy resources and systems benefit the economy.
The Good: Energy is a Job Generator
The 2017 United States Energy and Employment Report (USEER) estimated there are 6.2 million workers in Energy and Energy Efficiency in 2016. This broad definition for Energy accounts for four of every 100 jobs in the U.S. with the largest share in Energy Efficiency Construction. The Energy sectors defined by the USEER report added 300,000 net new jobs in 2016, more than any other sectors than Accommodation and Food Services.
Energy is a common thread woven throughout every aspect of our lives. It is a link between all sectors of the economy, our health, and the environment. Virtually every aspect of our modern industrial lives depend on reliable electrical power and energy infrastructures. Energy is vital for everything we produce but that link is weakening as manufacturing grows more efficient. Gross output in U.S. manufacturing has remained stable or grown since 1998, while overall fuel consumption and energy intensity have decreased.
The Bad: Energy Growth <> Job Growth
Even though energy is essential to our economic life, the development of energy resources does not translate into overall economic growth. At the state level, the development of natural resources and mining has not benefited the host states – there is no relationship between output growth in these sectors and the overall growth of the state economy. The lone exception is North Dakota, where the energy boom fueled growth in a state with about 750,000 people. For other states experiencing an energy boom, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, the energy boom has not translated to overall economic growth.
The Ugly: The Workforce Gaps
73 percent of employers reported difficulty hiring qualified workers over the last 12 months. Some of this reflects the difficulty in finding qualified workers willing with the skills and desire to take on a challenging job. However it also reflects the difficulty that some sectors have in recruiting from a broader pool of candidates.
Ethnic and racial minorities are not well represented in the energy workforce. In the U.S., Hispanic or Latino workers make up 16 percent of the workforce but only 14 percent in energy. Black or African American workers account for eight percent of the energy workforce compared to 12 percent. The glaring gap however is that across all sectors of energy women account for a low 22 percent of the workforce in energy efficient vehicles, up to 34 percent for electric power generation, which is still below the 47 percent for the overall U.S. workforce.
We need energy for our economy and it is an important source of job growth. However, the development of energy assets does not guarantee growth in other sectors. Furthermore, more must be done so that the jobs that are created are available to the widest possible pool of eligible candidates.
Springtime means conferences, and members of our team have been on the road. I have been back and forth to two conferences in Washington, D.C. in the last few months, attending the International Economic Development Council’s FED Forum in March, and the LOCUS Leadership Summit, in April. IEDC’s event was focused on economic development programs at the federal level, bringing in top economic developers throughout the county to interface with federal partners at the Economic Development Administration, Department of Labor, and other key partners. The LOCUS event brought together a coalition of real estate developers and investors who advocate for sustainable, equitable, walkable development in America’s metropolitan areas, as a program of Smart Growth America.
At both events, the topic of the hour was Opportunity Zones.
What Is the Opportunity Zones Program?
The Opportunity Zones program is a new federal economic development tax incentive designed to funnel private investment to low and moderate-income Census tracts across the U.S. The incentive provides Investors the opportunity to temporarily defer or avoid taxes on capital gains – profits from the sell of an investment – if those gains are reinvested in an Opportunity Fund benefitting low-income communities. These communities are designated as “Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZ).” Each state will be allowed to designate up to 25% of the eligible tracts for Opportunity Zone status, with the final selections being made by the state’s governor. As of April, Census tracts in 18 states had been designated as Opportunity Zones. These are available for viewing on a map available through CDFI Fund.
The creation of this policy was lead by the Economic Innovation Group, who anticipates claims that this program unleashing will unleash $6 trillion in unrealized capital gains that can be leveraged in the neighborhoods that need it most.
How Does it Work?
According to Kenan Fikri, Director of Research at the Economic Innovation Group, who participated in a session at the FED Forum, Opportunity Zones can best be understood as a tax benefit akin to EB-5, or the Earned Income Tax Credit. In fact, rather than being housed in HUD or Department of Commerce, the IRS will be managing this program. This is due to the fact that investors will be drawn to Opportunity Zones primarily through the incentive of deferred capital gains tax. Here’s an example of how it works:
If an investor cashed out $1 million in stocks, they would owe 23.8% or $238,000,000 of that in taxes to the government. But if that $1 million were invested into an Opportunity Zone, taxes would be deferred for five years. If these funds stay invested for more than five years, then the tax bill would be decreased by 10% and if funds stayed in invested for more than seven years, the tax bill would be reduced by another 5%. Furthermore, whatever capital gains would be collected from investments made by Opportunity Funds in the Zone, there would be no capital gains tax levied.
Opportunity Funds are the vehicles through which investments can be made in these zones. According to the statute, Opportunity Funds will be set up as a partnership or corporation. They can fund investment in a domestic corporation, a partnership interest, or real property, so long as any of these have 90% of more of their holdings in an Opportunity Zone.
What Can You Do to Prepare?
At both conferences the feeling regarding Opportunity Zones was one of excitement but also uncertainty. One presenter at the LOCUS Summit likened this rollout period to the “wild west” because there is so little understood about what the outcomes will be. This is due to the speed at which the program was adopted and executed, as well the choice to have the program interred at the Department of Revenue. Here’s what you can do to prepare:
Stay Informed. There are significant questions about how the Opportunity Funds will be set up, with details about aspects of the program still ill-defined. The CDFI Fund has a ton of resources – updated in real time – to keep you abreast of all that you need to know. Check FAQ’s, explore a map of designated QOZ’s and other resources, here.
Think Smart About Outcomes. There is no doubt that Opportunity Zones will massively impact the investment levels in low to moderate census tracts. If your state got an extension, and is not one of the 18 who already has designated their tracts, it could be worth reviewing some of the criticism that has surrounded the first round of designees, and learning from this process.
Crowdsource. Going forward there also seems to be a role for community based financial institutions to step into the role of administering Opportunity Funds, or even incorporating crowd-sourcing to make these funds more community oriented. Community development stakeholders should keep an eye out for the public comment process to weigh in on how these funds can be best used for their purpose of benefiting low income populations.
My circle of friends includes a lot of small business owners. People who own bars, print shops, jewelry businesses, motorcycle shops, yoga studios, food trucks, cideries, dinner clubs, podcasts, and organic farms. And they all have one thing in common.
They do not want to come to your chamber event.
I actually go to a lot of chamber and industry events—and I have benefitted tremendously from attending networking happy hours, gaining mentors and connections. But I’m an economic developer, and I’m used to the small talk, the dress code, and the business card exchange. My friends who are creative, entrepreneurial types are not interested in putting themselves in environments where the main activity is “networking” and the food options range from crudité and ranch to cheese and crackers, (typically without a gluten free or vegan option, excluding celery.) Faced with the choice of running marketing campaigns from their phone while they watch season 4 of Parks and Rec, or interacting with people they don’t know, they’re going to pick yoga pants and the couch over awkward conversations.
They also haven’t heard about your event. Your networking lunch may be posted on your website and Facebook page, but if this target audience is not already interacting with you on social media, then it’s not reaching small business owners outside of your members.
Why is this a problem? Why does the kombucha brewer need to know about and attend Chamber events? Because she represents your next generation of businesses, and if she is not accessing the services offered by your chamber and other aligned organizations, then your economic development ecosystem is failing.
Chambers are vital partners in economic development efforts. They are the access point for businesses in the region, and through their networks, businesses gain access to resources offered by the supportive organizations that can guide them to success, such as financing and mentorship opportunities.
Unfortunately, if a small business owner is looking at your chamber website, seeing a board and staff lacking diversity, holding events at the country club, she will not see your organization as a space where she fits. And when her business encounters a setback, without a network of support, you risk losing her business and all that comes with it—the owner, the employees, and the young people who would potentially be attracted to your community by the enticing things to eat, do, and see. Today, talent is the most important factor in retaining and attracting business, and chambers cannot stand to ignore a subset of small businesses just because they are unconventional or much younger than other members.
Another reason that your “Business After Hours” may not be attracting young people is that networking as an activity has lost its spark. With their purchasing decisions, Millennials have shown that they value authenticity, connection, and community – witness the success of outdoor brand Patagonia, whose products and branding advocate for ecological sustainability – and whose recent Pittsburgh store opening featured designs by a local print shop. With creative engagement with the community, Patagonia attracts young people with common goals and ideals to come together in their space, for events beyond shopping. Trading business cards and small talk does not provide engagement with a community or authentic connections.
Business networking events don’t really make sense to people running small, creative businesses. Talking to a bunch of random people at a business networking event is not an effective solution for growing your business when technologies like LinkedIn and Google exist, making it easy to research specific contacts, understand their expertise, and reach out for a coffee date. Finally, for young business owners, their time outside of work is limited, and they want to spend it having quality experiences.
So, what can you do?
Economic development is a profession built on relationships. Stopping by the new businesses that are cropping up in your community and introducing yourself and your organization goes a long way. You might have to do a little bit of hunting – small businesses operating from their houses won’t have a storefront yet, but could be selling significant amounts of merchandise on Etsy or another online platform.
One way to get in touch with these producers is to keep up with farmers markets and maker fairs in your community. Maker fairs like Handmade Arcade feature hundreds of craft-based artists, makers, and producers; consider reaching out to the fair organizers to get an roster of local vendors whose booths you can visit.
Millennials have been programmed their whole lives. From Little League to dance lessons to student life activities in college, Millennials are really good at engaging in organized fun. Having an activity or event gives participants something to talk about and engage in together, creating an authentic connection. The description of Newaukee, a young professionals group in Milwaukee explains why programming is so essential to creating meaningful networking events for young people:
“…there had to be a way to socialize and explore the city with their peers that did not entail hauling a stack of business cards to a stuffy networking event. And they also believed in building genuine, long-lasting relationships – people need to meet on a common ground, doing something that they truly love together.”
Newaukee hosts incredible events for their members, billed on their website as Signature Experiences, such as Tournavation, a crowd-sourced idea generation platform that focuses on solving important issues that face the city of Milwaukee, and The Launch, a curated networking program featuring an exhibition of hiring companies and potential recruits on a boat.
Social Media Ready
I am not suggesting you join Snapchat, but I am suggesting your event be worthy of posting on social media. Food choices, drink selections and choice of venue contribute to the quality of the event and the attractiveness of images to be shared. It’s not just enough to have a hashtag – consider experiences that young people can engage with and share on social media, such as a custom backdrop, or providing a station to make signs about why they love their community.
Also – make sure your events are being shared with the young people you are trying to engage. Social media is great for this but working with local online communities, such as blogs or message boards, will put your event in front of new eyes. Don’t forget community bulletin boards at coffee shops or bars – if your event flier is posted alongside music and art shows, that’s a good sign.
Don’t Go It Alone
To get maximum turnout from young folks at your events, engage them in the planning process – and in your organization. Start with asking young people to get involved in planning your events – ask for help in where to have them, and how to promote them. As they become more involved, ask them to join your committees or boards, or help them to create their own, Chamber-supported organizations.
For example, the group Connecticut Young Professionals was started in 2013 by a young person who was new to the state and has grown to more than 1,400 people. They hold events such as a non-profit pitch nights. In an interview, founder Faris Virani explains how he tailors events and messaging to his membership:
Growing up in the digital age, millennials are used to getting information very efficiently, delivered quickly and with brevity. Our speakers realize that their job is almost to plant seeds, not necessarily convey all the information during your speech.
Create a Judgement Free Environment
Today’s young entrepreneurs are more likely to wear a hoodie, echoing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, than a French cuff shirt reminiscent of Gordon Gekko. If you expect young people to wear different clothing to your event than what they wear to work every day, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re changing the venue and the programming of events, you might also consider specifying a dress code on your marketing – with friendly wording such as “Come as you are,” or Dress Code: Casual.
Take these suggestions and look at where your Chamber organization or networking program has room for growth. A good first step is to visit that brand new local brewery, coffee shop, or café and introduce yourself the old-fashioned way. Those authentic connections will take you a long way in connecting with the new generation of business owners.
Is it the Retail Apocalypse or simply Retail Restructuring?
There continues to be a great deal of apprehension about the retail sector. In June of 2017, Business Insider tallied more than 5,000 store closures with a projection of nearly 9,000 store closures by the end of 2017. Fourth Economy has mapped more than 1,700 of these closings across the United States. Traditional brick and mortar retail faces a fundamental challenge from shifts in consumer preferences and advances in online shopping and delivery services. The store closings are the physical manifestation of the challenges facing the retail sector, which often can leave significant redevelopment challenges for local community and economic development officials.
Despite the headlines and the hysteria, overall retail has been adding jobs. Job losses occurring over the last year may be a warning sign, but it is too early to tell. Fourth Economy created a dashboard to track three key statistics.
- Overall retail employment
- Jobs gains and losses from opening, expanding, closing and contracting
- Worker separation and hires
At this point, the data on retail employment does not indicate a “Retail Apocalypse.” Over the long run, retail has been very volatile and the impact of the recession created a greater disruption than we are seeing now. What is portrayed in the media reflects a shift within retail. Over the past year there have been significant losses in general merchandise, and five other retail categories. These stores represent many of the traditional brands in brick and mortar stores.
|Sep 2016||Sep 2017||Change|
|General merchandise stores||3,188,600||3,130,700||-57,900|
|Clothing & clothing accessories stores||1,351,800||1,321,100||-30,700|
|Food & beverage stores||3,096,200||3,067,400||-28,800|
|Electronics & appliance stores||530,200||502,100||-28,100|
|Sporting goods, hobby, book, & music stores||618,700||601,200||-17,500|
|Health & personal care stores||1,051,800||1,048,000||-3,800|
Other categories of retail are increasing, with nonstore retailers (Amazon) leading the way. Gains have also occurred in motor vehicle and parts dealers as well as building material and garden supplies. These gains were not enough to offset the losing categories, but it shows that the retail sector should not be painted with a broad brush.
|Sep 2016||Sep 2017||Change|
|Motor vehicle and parts dealers||1,988,600||2,012,900||24,300|
|Building material and garden supply stores||1,279,100||1,296,600||17,500|
|Furniture and home furnishings stores||477,100||484,000||6,900|
|Miscellaneous store retailers||833,200||834,400||1,200|
Even if retail is experiencing some short-term declines that portend larger losses to come, there are other segments of the service sector that are adding significant numbers of jobs. The 156,100 jobs added in food services and drinking places is nearly double the job loss in retail.
|Sep 2016||Sep 2017||Change|
|Food services and drinking places||11,499,000||11,655,100||156,100|
|Personal and laundry services||1,458,500||1,491,700||33,200|
|Amusements, gambling, and recreation||1,616,200||1,635,300||19,100|
|Museums, historical sites, and similar institutions||161,500||168,600||7,100|
|Repair and maintenance||1,288,000||1,292,400||4,400|
|Performing arts and spectator sports||457,500||459,700||2,200|
The dire forecasts are overblown. Consumers are shifting from commodities to experiences and many analysts say that retail’s future is to provide more than merchandise. This is as much about where the service is provided as how it is provided. Neighborhood level (Main Street) retail also appears to be adapting to these trends. People looking for and returning to walkable communities has helped, but so has the ability of “Mom and Pop” stores to differentiate through service and quality rather than low prices. The emphasis on more services, entertainment and food has also helped Main Street retail. Recent data on the performance of small retailers is not available at this time, so it is not possible to fully evaluate these trends but it appears that the dominance of big box and superstore retailers is being challenged on two fronts – online and on Main Street.
We talked with Chris Romer, President and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, when Eagle County, CO came up as the #6 mid-sized community on the Fourth Economy Community Index this year. At that time, Romer largely agreed with what we reported seeing in the data, but he had one bone to pick with our metrics. Yes, Romer could see how Eagle County received high scores in Talent, Investment, and Place, and he shared how environmental sustainability was crucial given the local economy’s reliance on outdoor recreation (you can read more on this here). But he couldn’t see how Eagle County could land on a list that takes housing affordability into account given how serious an issue it had become in the area.
Like our home city of Pittsburgh, Vail Valley appears to be “affordable” in terms of housing and transportation costs when viewed at a macro level compared with median household incomes. But also like Pittsburgh, data taken at a macro level can be deceiving. Back in July, Romer shared with us that housing affordability was front-of-mind for his organizations and partners in the area. Since then, we have noticed that even during the busy tourist season, the Eagle County Housing Task Force remains active in engaging the community to find solutions.
We caught up with Chris Romer in December to learn more about the Task Force and get his take on the connection between housing affordability and a strong local economy. Romer shared that his organization is supportive of initiatives driven by the community at large and by business owners, and lends a hand whenever possible to help advance efforts like the Housing Task Force.
“As a resort-oriented community,” he said, “Our challenge is that we have international demand for our real estate.” He went on to share that Vail Valley is unique because when someone goes to buy or sell a house in a place like Cincinnati, OH, where Romer grew up, most people are moving for a job or moving from somewhere nearby. By contrast, much of the residential real estate market in Eagle County, CO is made up of second homes or vacation homes. “That is exasperated by the fact that we are surrounded by public land, so we have 15% on which we can build.” Because of the recreational assets and the investment opportunity, this means a lot of competition for housing, says Romer.
When asked what he thought about the need for housing that is attainable for people working in the local tourism sector, Romer reported that tourism makes up about 48% of the local economy and that while local jobs in tourism, recreation, and hospitality pay about 60% above average for the state in those sectors, they are still lower paying jobs in many regards. Therefore, Romer said, “It does exasperate the challenge in terms of affordability.”
We wrapped up our conversation with Romer by asking what, in addition to the Housing Task Force, he would share with other economic developers on the topic. “We are very actively engaged with advocacy and working with elected officials to reduce regulatory burdens,” he said. “And we are working to educate the community on ways that we can impact and incentivize developers to include attainable and affordable housing.”
At Fourth Economy, we’ll be anxious to see what comes next for Eagle County in terms of housing affordability, and we want to hear your thoughts on Vail Valley’s approach. Strategies like this one, that pair smart economic development decisions with a long-term point of view, are what build the strong communities and economies that the Fourth Economy Community Index seeks to capture. You can subscribe to Vail Valley Partnership’s newsletter and follow them on social media by visiting www.vailvalleypartnership.com.