You write in the book that Community Economic Development has two goals: (1) Improve the economic situation of local residents and local businesses. (2) Enhance the community’s quality of life as a whole. In other words, Community Economic Development is local and holistic. I’d like to touch briefly on each of these. Why is the local aspect important?
Community Economic Development is by definition local. It recognizes that in most types of traditional economic development, the poor, the marginalized, those without power, and those without capital, are not really able to get ahead or participate in the economic bounty. Community Economic Development is local because it pays attention to the people that are already in that neighborhood or community. It’s better for the existing businesses and the people who are there, as opposed to bringing in from the outside a whole bunch of capital and investment and high paying jobs with an influx of new people.
Okay, same question about the holistic: Community Economic Development enhances the community’s overall quality of life.
A key indicator for traditional economic development activity is the total amount of tax revenue generated. As long as that’s going up and to the right, everybody’s happy. But thinking holistically about economic development in terms of quality of life means asking hard questions:
If we have more people moving into the neighborhood, what’s going to happen to the cost of housing? That needs to figure into the economic calculation.
Is money just being siphoned outside of the community and into corporate coffers? Or is the community able to keep the money and, with that money, maintain their houses, maintain streets, maintain the overall look and feel of the community?
Community Economic Development also recognizes that we’re not simply economic creatures. I mean, that’s one part of who we are and economics obviously has a huge impact on our overall quality of life, but it recognizes that that’s not the end of the story.
Can I add one more thing? Another critical element of this overall quality of life is self-determination and autonomy. Again, it’s not a win if you’ve got a top-down system that comes in and imposes economic growth on a neighborhood. It’s a win if the neighborhood can be autonomous to some degree, determining the answers to, “How do we want to use this street? What kind of businesses do we want in our neighborhood?”
A certain amount of collective action strengthens the overall dignity of people who live in a neighborhood. It recognizes their dignity and doesn’t just impose development on them.
Many people who are members of faith communities might be surprised to hear their congregation has a role to play in the economic development of the neighborhood. My hunch—and it’s just a hunch—is that many people who are involved in the day-in, day-out work of local economic development might be surprised to hear they could have an ally in a local faith community. How much work do you have to do to convince folks in both of those places that they can and maybe even should be working together?
On the faith-based side, I think there’s a growing recognition that we are called to care about our neighborhoods, to care about our communities. I think there is a growing recognition that faith communities do have an impact, either positive or negative. But I haven’t taken it upon myself to convince all the skeptics. I’m going for the low-hanging fruit. There’s enough who have come to the conclusion that, “Yes, we want to have a positive impact. Tell us more, how can we do this? How can we get beyond charity? How can we get beyond relief work and get involved in sustainable, long term development in our communities?”
So, I think that’s growing. On the economic developer side, I think there’s still a lot of work to do. People of faith have to earn their trust and show we have common goals, which is the thriving of our neighborhoods and our communities. I understand why some people have an aversion to faith-based groups. Maybe the onus is on us now to prove we can help and not be overbearing in our approach either.
I talk in the book about the economic ecosystems in our neighborhoods. If we’re going to move the needle on unemployment, or if we want to increase the economic multiplier and keep money circulating in your neighborhood, no one organization can do that. I’m trying to establish right up front that it takes an ecosystem. A church or faith-based group can fit into the ecosystem in a variety of possible ways, but they work with businesses and nonprofits and government and investors and developers.
Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of this interview!