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by Mick Fleming

Sometimes, when I hear a chamber executive say that she doesn’t “do” economic development, I have to refrain from asking the question. If it isn’t developing the economy, then what is the purpose of a chamber’s work?

When I was first recruited into this world decades ago, I had the same question and I would bark it at unsuspecting people. I have calmed down over the years, but the query still pops into my mind.

Yes, I understand that the formal definitions and traditional roles in most communities narrow economic development to a specific set of activities and processes. The majority of chambers of commerce do not engage in the kinds of job hunting, research, real estate deal making, and policy shaping envisioned under this standard definition. However, there is a reason that so many entities in your community – from the library to social service agencies – include economic development in their annual report. Under the definitions presented by renowned sources, they’re right.

New York University Professor Michael Todaro’s textbook Economic Development is in its 12th edition. In it, he says, “Economic development ideally refers to the sustained, concerted actions of communities and policymakers that improve the standard of living and economic health of a specific locality.

In well-known Indian economist Ammartya Sen’s version, economic development “is a policy intervention with the aim of “economic and social well-being of people…”

And the International Economic Development Council describes economic development as, “The creation of jobs and wealth and the improvement of quality of life… A process that influences growth and restructuring of an economy to enhance the economic well-being of a community.”

So what counts? Do your efforts to improve and promote the attractiveness of your town or region fit the definition? Is the nurturing of productive business networks that reduce transactional friction an economic development activity? Do chamber efforts to improve schools fit the definition? How about the fight to build vitality in downtowns? When your website portrays a place where visitors, prospective new residents, and potential investors would want to live, is the creation and upkeep on that site a part of economic development? And how about when you advocate against a policy that would damage business competitiveness? When you visit your members to listen to their challenges and opportunities, is that a member retention call or a job retention call? Does it matter?

And then there is the question raised in some circles between community development and economic development. Others point to chambers as the builders of product and development entities as the marketers of the product. I feel that distinction is restrictive and unflattering to both. If I have learned anything in the 35 years since I entered this world taking my first elected seat on a chamber board and my first appointed seat on an economic development corporation, it is that successful economic development is a complex continuum and matrix of different influences on economic health. Professional developers know their jobs cross artificial lines into so-called “chamber work” all the time. Likewise, chamber leaders engage in activities that grow economies every day.

Previously in this column I have described the differences between economic development of the past and the future. I called it the four Ps and the three Is. American economic developers of the past focused on industry (manufacturing facilities), inventory (develop-able land), and incentives (tax breaks). Over the last two decades, however, the process and practice of economic development has changed, resulting in emphasis on the four Ps: people, place, policy, and positioning.

Here’s the reality: there is an economic development role – or more likely a score of roles – played by chambers of commerce, whether or not they feel entitled or permitted to call themselves economic developers. Every chamber leader has a responsibility to understand the basics of how jobs, investors, and skilled employees decide where they should move or grow.

Do most of you need to travel to the Paris Air Show every other spring to poach aerospace subcontractors to move to your town? No.

Should you recast your perception of your portfolio of work to recognize the role you play in “the sustained, concerted actions of communities and policymakers that improve the standard of living and economic health of a specific locality?” I think yes.

Onward.

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