How to Prevent and Kill Development: On Purpose and by Accident

Rural Community Leaders Can Be Their Own Worst Enemies

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Jeff Geerts is a special projects manager at Iowa Economic Development Authority.

Jim Thompson is a business specialist for the Iowa Economic Development Authority's Main Street Iowa program.

Posted: Wednesday, October 18, 2017 8:00 pm

Public/private partnerships can make a positive difference for communities trying to encourage development or redevelopment, particularly in their downtowns.

But sometimes apathy — exacerbated by public officials who are popular but not good at their jobs, or city staff who want to be in charge of policy — get in the way.

That was the message of Jeff Geerts and Jim Thompson at the Growing Sustainable Communities Conference held recently in Dubuque, Iowa. Geerts is a special projects manager at Iowa Economic Development Authority. His colleague, Jim Thompson, is a business specialist for IEDA's Main Street Iowa program.

Thompson said problems like these contribute to what he and Geerts call "killing development on purpose and by accident."

Geerts said it's important to reflect on how a community can choose an approach to development that stays true to its values. When a downtown building is taken down, for example as part of a derelict building program, "it is amazing how many pocket park projects there are that come in to replace it. These are missed opportunities for economic development," he said.

Geerts gave a definition of sustainability he finds particularly useful. "Sustainability isn’t just about being green, or environmental, or economically feasible, or community minded. Sustainability is about creating the kind of community and lifestyle that can thrive even during hardship and times of change. If the economy goes sour, will our community thrive? If climate changes our weather patterns, will we be able to accommodate the change without losing what makes us a community?"

Geerts wants communities to consider whether they are the type to tear down old buildings, or to develop or redevelop them for modern usage, while retaining the charm of the past that makes people want to live there. "Is there a preservation ethic/motto or are they a tear-down kind of town? It is important to get people loving their towns and demonstrating that through their actions."

One way for town leaders to decide on their identity is to consider the 20th Century economic development approaches that are now symbols of the past. Choices such as trying to lure manufacturing jobs, thinking at the locally-based level, offering incentives, infrastructure and job training to entice development — these assume that people move to where the jobs are. But the reality, Geerts explained, is that there are fewer manufacturing firms out there to chase.

Another type of business that communities chase are known as "footloose industries." These companies move every few years whenever they get a better offer from elsewhere. They do have some positive characteristics, such as not causing as much pollution as traditional manufacturing, creating final products that are small and easy to transport, using skilled workers, and only requiring the sort of electricity that is readily available. However, the growth in this type of industry is leveling off. "Also,we don't want to chase them because they might not stick around," Geerts explained.

Thompson described the "new paradigm" that has taken the place of the 20th Century model. He said people first look for amenities they desire, and then find a job when they get to that place. "People work where they have to, live where they choose to," Thompson said. "People choose your town because you've got it together." The lesson he draws from this is straightforward but may be counter-intuitive to some. "Job creation does not necessarily lead to population growth. Capital investment in equipment does not necessarily tie to greater job creation."

The 21st Century approach, Thompson said, is to distinguish between economic development and community economic development. Thompson and Geerts agreed it is important to lure people into communities, which means attracting, retaining, and developing talent. Community economic development is predicated on quality of services, is amenity-based and assumes jobs move to where there are people. The result is a sustainable, attractive community where people want to live and where development downtown and elsewhere can succeed.

"People want school quality and safe, livable communities. People feel safer when there are more people on the street and there is less crime and grime," Thompson said.

Thompson noted that in many areas of the country housing is one of the biggest issues slowing down development, especially in rural areas. Number two is workforce development. He said it is time to forget about developing categories of housing that will attract young singles, or retired people, or families. Regardless of life-phase, almost everyone wants housing that is safe, affordable, with safe areas for pedestrians, located in mixed use areas with plenty of green space. "We need to create all the types of housing people want, and people will move there. Millennials and young professionals want the same things as baby boomers and empty nesters. It is time to get over labels."

Thompson described the key components of what is known as primacy of place. These include arts, culture, tourism, community design, community collaboration for educational excellence, community well-being, good municipal governance and community readiness for change

"If city government is getting in the way of development, that needs to change. That goes double for state government," he said.

Thompson detailed some top priorities within a roadmap for growth that communities should consider.

These include collaborating with non-traditional partners, developing a strategic mindset and action, considering whether thinking regionally rather than only locally will add value, and assessing whether policies match stated priorities. There should be a resiliency mindset and meaningful community conversations taking place.

Thompson and Geerts want communities to succeed with their community economic development. One place to start is understanding the point of view of various players. For example, what do planners say about economic development? A short list is that you should involve economic development staff in the development review process. Be aware of what incentives your city offers. Adopt a customer service orientation to development review; utilize a mapping system of available sites; know what industries your community is trying to attract and create policies, plans and codes that are supportive of economic development.

On the other side of the coin are suggestions economic development professionals have for planners. These include promoting and emphasizing infrastructure, enhancing the sustainable economic development capacity of your city, increasing the productivity of existing establishments, and increasing entrepreneurial activity.

There is also the matter of what developers say about communities. This includes knowing whether a city or community will fight for a certain neighborhood, whether it has a plan for redevelopment, whether it has incentives in place for development, and is not swayed by a vocal minority in opposition to development. According to Thompson and Geerts, developers want to go where government appreciates their contribution to the economy and values local ownership.

Thompson said communities should develop comprehensive plans and actually use them. "If it is not a good plan, get a good one." Good can be defined by whether existing regulations, policies and vision support the plan. In addition, by whether the community supports the plan.

Geerts said downtown revitalization funds can be used to rehab facades of downtown buildings. He said there has been "phenomenal results," but that in recent times there have been fewer applications for these funds. He explained the value of these projects in terms of "positive peer pressure." He said anything that reduces the obsolescence factor of old buildings means that everybody wins. He compared community economic development within a downtown to housing on the town's fringes. "When you are building McMansions on an acre of land, someone from out of town buys it, and that's were economic development ends. But when you develop within city limits, appropriate housing creates a domino effect. When an older person moves out of a farm house into appropriate housing, for example, a new family can take that farm house and appreciate that extra space, and the older person has a residence more suited to their needs.

Thompson and Geerts agreed that demolition by neglect happens every day. In addition, sometimes projects languish because of unsuitable policies. For example, one Iowa community hoped to do infill development on a town square. But, city parking requirements for a certain number of spaces per business meant they'd need to buy an extra lot just for parking, so the developer did not carry out the project. A more sensible idea would be instead of a parking minimum, have parking maximums, Thompson said, or shared parking. He said in some communities, "public works and street departments are driving what we do, limiting appropriate downtown housing just because somebody might have to push snow 12 times a year."

Policies and incentives for community economic development include making sure there are no barriers in codes, ordinances or policies. At the same time, they need to prohibit undesirable actions and incentivize positive actions. There needs to be a level playing field, with policies that reflect community visions goals and a budget that reflects community priorities.

Thompson and Geerts described a list of "tools and surgical instruments" that can be used to help communities with economic development suited to the 21st Century model of not waiting for a "white knight" developer to do everything for them, and pay for it, too. A few of these incentives include urban renewal, tax increment financing, housing abatement, energy incentives, and historic districts. Useful policies include business retention and expansion, defined and multi-department inclusive development processes, and schools that offer business training.

Regardless of which method a community uses to define itself and how it wants to remain a place people choose to live, Geerts and Thompson said the reality is that "not making a decision is a decision."

Julianne Couch is the author of The Small-Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century (University of Iowa Press).

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