Creating a More Adaptable & Inclusive Approach to Economic Development

Making Economic Development More Adaptable

Past economic development planning efforts have focused on a one-size-fits-all methodology, applying common practices and principles to all regions. A more tailored approach that accounts for differences in population demographics, workforce readiness, local geography and other critical factors will lead to more successful economic development planning and execution. Precision economic development is defined as follows: “Putting focused research, data, and community assets into action to strengthen economic development activities.” A broad, generalized approach inevitably overlooks certain groups, resulting in vulnerable populations continuing to be left behind. Economic development that is more sensitive to the unique characteristics of each region is more inclusive and ultimately more effective.

Challenge the Idea of Having a One Size Fits All Approach

Each city and region is different when it comes to the economic forces that shape its landscape. Economic Development is ultimately concerned with how people interact with each other and utilize resources that impacts quality of life and the freedom to enjoy a good standard of living. However, while standard data and measures are necessary tools to guide economic development efforts and provide some uniformity to economic development, they cannot be utilized in a one size fits all approach. Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter has the described the United States economy as a network of metropolitan economies. Each city and region is structured around a unique set of factors including but not limited to mix of industry specializations, labor and housing market characteristics, local government policies and political will, past history, and geographic location that shape their economic and social fortunes. Therefore, having an approach that takes all factors into account is not a luxury, but a necessity when forming economic development strategies.

Economic Activity and Environmental Remediation Through Outdoor Recreation

The Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA Trails) is an extensive off-road trail system in Eastern Pennsylvania which has been named one of the top 10 destinations in the country for ATVs, full-size vehicles, and dirt bikes. After mining operations ceased on the property in the 1950s, the site was abandoned and used as a dumping ground. Some began to use the site for various off-roading activities, taking advantage of the rough terrain and extensive vacant land. There were many safety concerns due to previous mining activities and other hazards on the property, and in 2013 the Northumberland County AOAA Authority was formed to develop a safe, regulated trail system for off-roading activities.

AOAA Trails has been very successful, gaining popularity and creating economic activity for the region. The County leveraged several partnerships during the development of the AOAA, including the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation (BAMR), who assisted in back-filling open crop-falls and diverting acid mine drainage water (AMD). Other partnerships include the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Northumberland County Commissioners, and the Northumberland County Planning Commission. Since opening in 2014, the AOAA has welcomed people from all over the country and hosted sold-out events that attract visitors to the Eastern Pennsylvania region.

Using Community Colleges as Workforce Development Partners

The City of Decatur, Alabama is located outside of Huntsville, a larger city that has grown significantly in recent years. The increased population in Huntsville has resulted in more cars in the area, and numerous car dealerships have been established in nearby Decatur. This subsequently resulted in greater demand for automotive technicians in the area.

The lack of training available for automotive technicians within a two-hour radius of the newly instated dealerships demonstrated a clear workforce development opportunity for the city of Decatur. The owner of one of the dealerships got in touch with Calhoun Community College (“CCC”), which discontinued their automotive training program over 25 years ago, to see if the college would be interested in restarting that program. The automotive program began to take shape, with courses initially being taught at an area high school and rented facility. In 2018, the EDA awarded a $1.5 million Public Works grant that allowed CCC to construct their own automotive training facility, featuring 20 automotive bays.

Today, the CCC automotive training program is fully accredited, bestowing two-year associate degrees in automotive technology. Students receive training for both gas-powered and electric cars so that they will have widely applicable skills and flexibility in finding a job after graduating. Many students take part in internships alongside their coursework to gain practical experience and make connections in the industry. The college is also doing outreach to younger generations in low-income neighborhoods, particularly by sponsoring summer camps through local organizations, with the goal of spreading awareness of the college’s diverse offerings.

In response to increased demand for automotive technicians, the Decatur community came together to meet this challenge. A specific need was identified in the workforce, and various community leaders from dealerships, CCC, and partnering organizations offering internships created a robust program and path to employment for their community. Ongoing efforts are being made to connect low-income neighborhoods with college opportunities to further expand equitable workforce development in the future.

The principles of precision economic development contributed to the success of these projects. After taking inventory of existing conditions, underutilized community assets were reimagined to create new amenities and workforce solutions that brings economic vitality to their respective regions.

Unique Asset Considerations Lead to Better Outcomes

It is important to note that cities and regions have done a lot to promote and obtain equitable economic development, but there is a lot that remains to be accomplished. When precision economic development is not considered, it can lead to inequitable outcomes, acerbating other socio-economic factors that has its roots in economic disparity, racial inequality, and failed models of sustainability.

These are often difficult factors to overcome and yet it is important to note that achieving equitable economic development requires intentional activity. Economic development strategies that simply rely on market forces and private demands usually lead to larger gaps that further divide the “haves” from the “have nots.” Government and Civic Leaders “must now see their roles transition from being just basic service providers to catalysts for economic mobility” (Bowdler, 2017).

If we do Equitable Economic Development well, the America of tomorrow will look fundamentally different from that of today. The economic success of our nation depends on the choices we make today that affect whether or not all people will be able to fully participate in our economy (Blackwell, 2017). We must be willing to do the hard work of fighting to achieve equitable economic development that is inclusive of people of color, immigrants, and low-income and rural communities. This commitment to these communities and implementing precision economic development strategies is critical to ensuring the prosperity of our collective future.


This content is part of Econsult Solutions’ thought leadership initiative, ESI Center for the Future of Cities, which brings together experts in urban economics, policy, and strategy to craft new evidence-based research on the most important issues facing cities around the world, and to provide consulting services for public and private sector organizations working in urban settings.


Lucie Doran, Analyst | [email protected]

Lucie Doran is an analyst at Econsult Solutions. She worked as a research assistant at ESI prior to joining as a full-time analyst. Ms. Doran graduated from Drexel University with a B.S. in Mathematics and a B.S. in Economics. Lucie brings experience with econometric modeling, Stata programming, and a passion for sustainable development.


Frank Robinson, Vice President | [email protected]

Frank Robinson is a vice president at Econsult Solutions. He has been a leader in the economic development and sustainable development industries for over 20 years, working with corporate, government and nonprofit clients, banks and community development financial institutions and small businesses.

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