They always seem so cheerful. I guess it goes with the territory, to be optimistic whether there is reason for optimism or not.
They’re the economic development professionals who work for local governments. They get handed the tough task of trying to attract business and private investment to places that often have lacked both for decades.
They choose from a long list of ideas that have no guarantee of working. The odds are they won’t work or at least won’t bring a return worthy of the investment. Still, the staff is expected to sell the plan, build support among the politicians and taxpayers, forecast that great things will follow if only we
• Build a convention center.
• Build a golf course.
• Build a performing arts center.
• Build a museum or three.
• Subsidize downtown condos.
• Tear down those old buildings.
• No, wait, restore those old buildings.
• Build parking garages.
• No, wait, discourage parking with mass transit.
• Attract a grocery store.
• Recruit a multiplex theater and “lifestyle” center.
• Close main street to cars.
• Brand the city with a catchy slogan.
• Reopen main street to cars.
• Put the city on the map with a spire.
• Cut off the waterfront with a freeway spur.
• Reconnect the waterfront with a bridge over the freeway spur.
• Clean up that brownfield.
• Entice the “creative class.”
• Give tax breaks to the high-tech sector.
• No, wait, give tax breaks to the international financial services sector.
• No, wait, give tax breaks to the clean-water-technology sector.
• No, wait, encourage creation of “The Medical Mile.”
Places such as Tacoma lurch from one fad to another – what one analyst dubbed the economic development panacea du jour.
Yet no matter what they do, it is never enough for the politicians who promise jobs or for the Chamber of Commerce types who need someone to blame for their own lack of success.
Like baseball managers who don’t win every year, the economic development folks are the first to get fired. The alternative to blaming the director is to admit that there are no magic beans to grow jobs.
Last week, Tacoma sacked its economic development director, Ryan Petty. It was his second tour trying to fire up the city’s private sector; the first was with the Economic Development Board. In between he was president of the Rockford, Ill., Chamber of Commerce.
But this isn’t really about Petty. It’s about whether local governments can do much to move the economy in the first place or whether factors outside the control of politicians and bureaucrats are in charge.
Might they be better off sticking with the basics of providing infrastructure, public safety, parks and libraries, good schools and colleges? Might it be better to practice good government that might lead to lower taxes and better services for all, not just the chosen sectors?
Even if government has a role in jump-starting a flatlining city, at what point does it get out of the way and let – no, force – the private sector to stand on its own?
No one can accuse Tacoma of not trying. And the city – especially the downtown – looks better and gets more use than it did in the trough of decline in the 1970s. It is good to know that several hundred million in tax dollars can still make a difference.
But the efforts have not yet transformed Tacoma. And the investments that have helped most are those that first benefited current residents – the theaters, the museums, the Esplanade, the University of Washington Tacoma.
As Danish architect and urban-spaces designer Lars Gemzoe told Tacoma residents in 2008, “If you can make something great for yourself, these are things generally tourists will like to see.”
Tacoma is not unique. Lots of cities and counties across the country are trying the same things, competing for the same investments, hoping for the same revival. Most have gone through the same or similar list of panaceas. And each is run by a cheerful optimist like Ryan Petty who keeps plugging away when most humans would become discouraged.
As such, there will always be work for folks like him. And Tacoma will find another to take on what is probably the toughest job in firstname.lastname@example.org