Because the phrase “preaching to the choir,” meaning to tell people something they already agree with, has a religious derivation, it seems only appropriate to respond to some recent comments published in this newspaper on the subject of economic development with a hearty “amen.”
Here is Gary Brackett, retiring from the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce after 37 years, in an interview with The News Tribune’s C.R. Roberts:
“There are not enough entrepreneurs in town. We have to help them. That’s the future of our community. Otherwise, we will always be a suburb.” And, in a related comment, “We continue to grow our own, and we’re in the middle of growing the next generation of businesses here. If you’re really going to get ahead, you’re going to have to grow your own.”
There’s a lot of meat in that interview, not to mention some great one-liners, like “I’m not a real fan of potential. I’m more interested in actualization. I’m tired of Tacoma having potential.” Or maybe that’s a three-liner. Whatever the count, it’s worth your time to read the interview if you’ve given any thought to the economic-development history and future of this community.
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Given that this choir-of-one has been enthusiastically singing much the same message for years, Brackett’s comments probably deserve yet another affirmation.
In economic-development circles, there are several strategies for generating the business activity that states and local communities count on to produce jobs to keep citizenry employed; They can best be summed up as recruitment, retention and growth. As Brackett mentions several times, it’s a never-ending process, or at least it is if communities expect to maintain a healthy economy. Companies move, get merged out of existence or fold. That’s inevitable. What’s not is having something to replace them; that has to be constantly, consistently and persistently worked.
Not to revive unpleasant memories, but Tacoma has had considerable firsthand education as to the importance of keeping the pipeline full. The jobs lost when Puget Sound Bank or Hillhaven or Russell Investments were bought or moved had to be replaced just to maintain the community’s status quo, much less improve it.
One way to find replacements is to grab them from someone else, in the form of either a relocation or an investment by a company not already here. It’s a strategy sometimes dismissed as “smokestack chasing” (a term that is showing its age). It’s a highly competitive and expensive (in time and money) strategy to pursue, and it often leads to disappointment.
But people keep trying it because on those occasions when it does pay off it does so handsomely. Ask the South Carolinians how it worked out to land Boeing to replace an industrial base in sectors such as textiles that had been depleted. Tacoma has worked that angle too, sometimes to success, as in the case of SeaLand and other shipping lines moving to the port.
A strategy that results in fewer high-profile victories but which might in the long run pay better is to keep what you already have. The incentives needed to retain companies are often less expensive than recruitment enticements, and companies can sometimes be encouraged not just to maintain what they have locally but add to it. Tacoma has seen some instances of that as well.
Then there’s the grow-your-own approach. It’s the one that is hardest to pull off, because it’s impossible to plan which companies are going to take off, but it offers the highest returns.
If you can bear one more mention of that city up north, consider the economic mainstays of the Seattle regional economy. Two of the biggest in modern times — Boeing and Microsoft — weren’t the result of specific strategies, they were more products of historical accidents, that the founders happened to live there. A third, Amazon, certainly wasn’t recruited to town through any official campaign.
But if you can’t plan for entrepreneurial successes, does that even count as an economic-development strategy? Yes it does, but one that works differently than recruitment or retention. It means paying attention to the overall business landscape and climate, rather than individual companies. Is there cheap office and work space available? Are the local educational institutions talking up entrepreneurialism, telling students “you can do this” and encouraging those with ideas to give them a shot? Do local entrepreneurs have a way to connect with funders, mentors and each other? Do they get the sense this is an entrepreneurial community?
Tacoma is an entrepreneurial town, in at least one sector. Just read the coverage in this paper of the robust activity in new restaurants catering to a near infinite spectrum of niches in cuisines. The trick is in translating that activity to other business segments. Not all of those will succeed, any more than every restaurant or brewery will endure. But out of that testing of new ideas, and new approaches to old ones, will come the companies and leaders that create jobs and sustain the local economy.
That almost sounds like evangelizing for entrepreneurialism, which has been done in this space before. But it’s a sermon topic worth revisiting from time and time — and we don’t even ask you to pass and fill the collection plate after hearing it.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.