N.C. Economic Development Representative
U.S. Economic Development Administration
Do you provide assistance to small towns?
Through EDA, I do a lot of assistance to regional planning organizations, states—the state of North Carolina obviously—localities, which could include municipalities, it could include small towns, it could include larger towns. EDA primarily works with distressed communities, which is obviously defined in our regulations, but we really work in terms of helping support effective planning. We also work with our partners who do comprehensive economic development strategies in terms of helping communities understand what their various assets are, and understand how to leverage those assets to support very concrete, measurable economic development outcomes.
EDA covers the nation and there’s representatives—not all are field-based, I’m actually located in North Carolina—but there’s representatives for each state. You can get the names of your representative by going to EDA.gov and go into contacts.
Do you think that communities, especially small towns, are aware of you and that you’re available to them?
EDA tries to do a lot of outreach. We work with a lot of traditional and non-traditional partners, but we always appreciate partnership in terms of getting the word out. People know us for our grant programs, but people should also be aware we have a lot of data tools in terms of Stats America. That’s kind of a clearinghouse of a lot of user-friendly data tools that can help geographies understand their various economic assets, that can help a local community understanding how they may approach an economic development issue, to understanding how they could align with and fit into with some larger economic development, regional development opportunities.
Are those data tools on your website self-service – can someone figure them out on their own?
Absolutely, and clients can always reach out to their economic development representative to ask questions or to the help desk information on the site itself.
What do you think is some of the most useful information in the data tools?
There’s a lot of information there. I personally love— you know, there’s so much talk right now about clusters, which is the geographic concentration of industries or firms or wages. People tend to talk a lot about industry clusters. People talk less about occupational clusters and the importance of and the linkage of occupational data with economic development is so critical.
So being able to link workforce development initiatives with the economic development initiatives, being able to use that rich repository of information to better understand what are the assets of your population, and how does that align with the industries in your community, how you may be able to figure out strategies to address gaps or be able to capitalize on areas where you’re really strong, I think presents a really unique opportunity that some communities haven’t taken full advantage of.
Do you find differences in the problems of small cities and towns versus larger areas?
I think every community is unique. I think one of the challenges is that sometimes, as the federal government or as any kind of government, it’s easy to try to create one-stop problems. One of the things that is most exciting about EDA, one of the things I love about EDA, is that we really work with partners in the field to make customized solutions, and to try to partner and bring up those locally developed ideas and strategies that really respond to those individual and unique needs.
One community might be facing a really significant economic dislocation because of—Hurricane Matthew, for example, that we had. That may result in buyouts of a community, or may result in a downtown quarter being devastated. You might have old properties, then try to figure out how to re-purpose them. That experience may be similar in terms of, “how do you address blight?” but it manifests itself differently than in a community that maybe has lots of vacant properties and is trying to figure out how to re-purpose them. That would also be different in a community that is trying to figure out, “how you build entrepreneurship?” and “how do you bring in youth?” to help them see different possibilities and really build on that.
Every community is different, every asset that they’re going to need is a little different, and every strategy that they should pursue is going to be based on what those individual challenges are, and what those opportunities and the people and the resources in that community are.
What do you most wish that mayors and town managers knew that they don’t know?
I think sometimes there is a tendency to want to do it all yourself, and to do what the next community is doing. We see a lot of the same types of applications. Every community wants to have an incubator or accelerator or a workforce development center, and those are all great things. But maybe not every community needs one. So if the next community has one of those, how can you leverage that to do something else? How can you partner with them? Really kind of exploring those partnerships as opposed to having to feel like you have to duplicate and copy what the next community over has done. Again, building on those assets.
What other advice do you have for town leaders?
I just have a quick plug. EDA works with economic development districts, which are just fantastically important partners in terms of doing regional strategic plans and being able to integrate with private and public partners at the table. If community leaders have not been engaged in that process, they should work to try to figure out who in their community is leading that and get engaged in that process.
That is a really important tool to identify what the regional assets are and to identify and name the regional strategies that the community collectively is going to work on. If they’re not in that document, if they’re not in that plan, if they’re not in that process, they are missing out on a really huge opportunity. Find out what your Economic Development District is and get engaged.