Creating revitalization in slow markets

Small town main street
Photo by Cindy Cornett Siegle, via Flickr.

In communities where the market is slow, attracting developers and investors can be a tough challenge. A slow market can have many causes such as an economic downturn, a geographic disadvantage or a weak competitive edge within the region. Local leaders of small towns from states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Iowa, Maryland and California discussed the issues that impact attracting growth and development in a weak market during a session titled “Creating revitalization in slow growth markets” at the June 2014 Local Leaders Policy Forum in Washington, DC.

“Slow growth is relative to the market,” remarked Mayor Andrew Fellows of College Park, MD, and other leaders agreed. Mayor Ruth Randleman of Carlisle, IA pointed to other communities in the immediate Des Moines metropolitan region as their major competition. Former Mayor John Robert Smith of Meridian, MS, who currently serves as co-chair of Transportation for America, a program of Smart Growth America, suggested that sister cities in Meridian’s greater geographic region and neighboring states were their biggest competition. “Our problem was that we were trying to be Gulfport or Biloxi, when we didn’t realize that we had strengths of our own,” said Smith.

Erik Pages, President of EntreWorks Consulting, described the difference between building upon internal assets versus landing a large external company to come in and spur local economic activity. In traditional economic development, a community seeks to attract a large employer by offering hefty incentives that include tax abatement, zoning variances, and other public subsidies. This approach often results in a greenfield development project for the new manufacturing facility or office park. Such a project may add jobs to the area but fail to support the local revitalization needs.

“It has always been easier to entitle something out by the highway than to utilize existing properties in town. We found that a lot of the economic potential that you create in a town goes unrealized, in large part due to the fact that existing properties are privately held, blighted or underutilized,” said Ian Ross, CEO of OppSites. Ross asserted that the future of real estate is in utilizing those existing properties within the core of the community to their maximum potential.

Pages went on to describe the economic gardening strategy to spur growth, which involves cultivating local entrepreneurs and small businesses. In today’s competitive market, more and more communities are looking within to promote local entrepreneurship, talent and innovation. Communities utilizing this method are looking to market their best strengths to create jobs and economic activity while also revitalizing neighborhoods. The small town of Carlisle, IA, a bedroom community of less than 4,000 people that is part of the greater Des Moines metropolitan region, has been positioning itself to do just that.

“We are trying to become a niche in the region as an outdoor playground by building on our natural resources. Our motto has become ‘Carlisle – The Natural Choice,’” said Randleman. She explained, “Establishing a unique identity within the region is part of our strategy for becoming an appealing option to prospective businesses and new residents.”

Former Mayor John Robert Smith of Meridian, MS served in office for 16 years and described the tough state of his city before revitalization took hold. “Meridian had an inferiority complex and we had no confidence in ourselves. A town has a personality, just like a person, and you feel it when you walk into that community.” Smith offered that communities need to ask themselves who they were in the past, who they are now, and who they aspire to be. As mayor he saw that the proud past of Meridian was based on transportation and the arts, and he sought to restore that culture and bring life and pride back to the city by rebuilding on those assets.

Leaders also discussed the tipping point of the revitalization process—that moment when the changes happening in the community became evident. For Mayor Randleman, it was during the comprehensive plan update process: while engaging and working closely with community members, she saw people opening up to what was possible. “If you’re not doing it with them, they think you’re doing it to them,” Randleman explained.

In Meridian, Mayor Smith recalled a man who had filed lawsuits against him and the City in protest of the new Union Station development. The tipping point came when that same man visited the Mayor’s office not to protest the development, but to inquire about renting an office in the new development.

Many leaders were intrigued by the economic gardening concept of growing from within. Mayor Knox Ross of Pelahatchie, MS realized that his town has still been using the traditional approach of going after the big employer or company and realized it would be worthwhile to look at new methods. Leaders gained a fresh outlook on local economic growth as well as new ideas from one another on how to build upon local strengths.

This session was part of the Local Leaders Policy Forum, which was organized by Smart Growth America’s Local leaders Council—a nationwide network of local leaders working to build great communities that are economically strong, inclusive and sustainable. Learn more about local innovations around the country and see how local leaders are implementing their local smart growth visions.

Neha Bhatt contributed to this article.

Local Leaders Council