Bill Popp: Community and economic development go hand in hand

By BILL POPPJanuary 12, 2014 

In my work on economic development, I get a lot of questions, ideas and perspectives from business, community and political leaders, as well as citizens of our fair city.

Questions like, "When is the Amazon.com distribution facility coming to town?" Ideas like, "Data centers are Alaska's future. Go get them!" And a multitude of perspectives ranging from the insightful and highly entertaining to the crazy. It all comes with the territory. But pretty much everyone I talk to, no matter their point of view or background, agrees on one thing: they want Anchorage and Alaska to grow and prosper, with opportunity for everyone.

Among people I talk with, there is also a fair amount of misconception and confusion about what economic development is, and how it differs from community development. Though related and vital to each other's success, community and economic development are very different creatures.

Community development focuses on assuring the foundations of a strong and healthy community are in place: public safety; affordable housing; education and vocational institutions; high quality, affordable health care; solid public transportation; excellent roads, bridges and airports; and broadband internet access. These are the key elements needed for economic development to be successful.

Economic development is "a program, group of policies, or activity that seeks to improve the economic well-being and quality of life for a community by creating and/or retaining jobs that facilitate growth and provide a stable tax base," according to the International Economic Development Council playbook.

Economic development really means attracting business investment dollars that generate long-term private sector jobs. Such investment can include new facilities, like warehouses, distribution centers, fabrication plants, retail malls and office towers. It can include new professional practices, like law, information technology, design or medicine. Investments can range from new startups like software companies, pizza joints and art galleries to outdoor sports and second-hand fashion clothing stores to resource-extraction industries like fishing, mining and oil and gas.

Economic development efforts, from entrepreneurship to national business attraction, will be less successful without a community's ongoing investment in its foundational institutions and infrastructure. Inversely, without smart, targeted economic development efforts, community development ultimately languishes or fails.

Business interests, whether locally grown or attracted from outside a community, will be much less likely to make job-creating investment in a community where the streets are in disrepair, the parks are overgrown, schools are under-performing, or people are afraid to go outside of their homes.

In Anchorage, we're in pretty good shape with these key community elements. But that's not to say the job is done. Community development is an ongoing process. It requires constant care and maintenance -- like a fish tank. If you don't keep the tank clean and the fish fed, the results will not be pleasant.

If you're interested in learning more about these concepts, I recommend "The Coming Jobs War" by Jim Clifton, the chairman and CEO of Gallup. The book does an excellent job of explaining the community conditions that must be in place for business investments in job creation to succeed. Clifton clearly outlines how the future success of cities, like Anchorage, will be determined by their investments in community and economic development.

As Anchorage moves into 2014 and beyond, we have things to work with and things to work on. But given our success in overcoming past challenges, I feel good about our future as both a community and an economy.

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