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The truth is, strategic economic development planning is rather simple. This article seeks to demystify preparation of an economic development strategy, simplifying the process into ten easy tasks. By answering simple questions, a group of lay people can prepare an economic development strategic plan for their community.

Step 1 - Who are we?

Yes, we know we are a community of say, 5,000 people, but do we know how many employees we have in the workforce? What jobs they do? Their ages and how much/what type of education they have? How many are unemployed or underemployed? Many of these questions can be answered by U.S. Census data. According to business site locators, available workforce is one of the top, if not the top, criteria of any firm seeking to expand or locate a new business operation.

Step 2 - What is our economy?

It is usually simple to identify the major employers, such as the school district, hospitals, and city or county government. However, there is a large segment of jobs (some estimate 80 percent) provided by small businesses—and small businesses are the primary generator of new jobs. Data from the U.S. Census, U.S. Department of Commerce and your state employment agency can be useful in providing a narrative and quantified description of the number and type of jobs in the community. Such indicators are important for performance measurement and therefore, knowing the type of jobs that the community would like to attract.

Step 3 - What are our problems and opportunities?

One way to answer this question is to complete what researchers call a “SWOT” analysis—a list of a community’s economic Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. A SWOT analysis might disclose that your workforce is comprised of a high concentration of skilled computer operated machine tool makers, or that the farmland designated for industrial development has no water and sewer and is not “shovel ready.”

Step 4 - What are our strengths?

Like a well-trained prizefighter, an economic development strategy must identify the community’s “best punch.” It might be a unique geographic location affording superior logistic transportation amenities, or proximity to a nationally rated university. Other times, it might be a young, highly educated available workforce, or a recreational or small town residential lifestyle.

Step 5 - What do we want to be?

Of the ten questions, this one is the most difficult. It is most often answered by a carefully worded vision statement of a community’s desired future image. The phrase “Our Future Vision is for our community to be the premier regional location for business investment in 2015” is an example of a vision statement. This statement tells a big story. First, it proposes that the community will be the premier location for new business investment when compared to surrounding areas. Then it provides a means and a timeframe to measure success.

Step 6 - How do we get there?

The answer becomes a list of specific actions that either a) eliminates defined weaknesses, or b) maximizes identified strengths. For example, the lack of a “shovel ready” site can be remedied by investment in utilities, roads, and governmental approvals necessary to have the site ready for construction immediately upon receipt of a building permit.

Step 7 - What resources do we have and need?

Every community has resources. The key is identifying and involving them in developing the economic development strategic plan. Prepare a chart listing the specific work task, the person or organization responsible, the due date, and the funding source. In our example, a work task to install infrastructure for a “shovel ready” site may be assigned to the city public works department, and obtaining necessary planning/zoning approvals would be a task for the city planning department.

Step 8 - Who is responsible?

The key to successful implementation requires gaining commitments from specific individuals to complete work tasks. This “buy-in” is critical to success. In our model, the public works director and city planner would be named as “responsible parties” and charged with the duty to complete one or more specific work tasks.

Step 9 - How much does it cost?

Undertaking an economic development program costs money, typically more than any single organization has within their budget. Answering this question establishes a budget for each work task and identifies who is to provide the funding for the task, fostering collaborative implementation of the strategic plan.

Step 10 - How do we know when we get there?

Useful milestones to measure success should be included as part of the strategic plan. Measurement tools and a reporting process will “keep the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing” which is important to avoid duplication and focusing efforts in the same direction.

Preparing an economic development strategic plan is not an overly complex process. There are numerous resources for communities to draw from, including regional planning organizations, MSU Extension, and private consultants. While use of outside assistance brings technical skills and greater experience to the process, community representatives are still required to answer all ten questions, develop the vision and work tasks, and accept responsibilities to complete each work assignment.

Charles Eckenstahler serves on the faculty of the Michigan Association of Realtors and Land Use Leadership Academy, and is a program trainer for the Michigan Association of Planning. You may reach him at or by phone at 219-861-2077.



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