When I first entered into this sometimes inscrutable profession of helping communities help themselves, the name of the organization I joined was the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development. But community developers and economic developers were separated by more than just the comma. There was an old joke that you could always tell the difference between the two professions by the shoes they were wearing. Economic developers wore Wing Tips and community developers wore Birkenstocks (I always felt guilty wearing Birkenstocks). But the distinctions between the work ran deeper than just footwear.
These two professions rarely met with each other, only occasionally talked to each other, and never ever strategized with each other for the benefit of the community. They each did their own thing without consideration of the other, even when it came to writing grants and seeking funding. The debate around funding and who should get it to achieve community goals, especially in tight budgetary times, has perplexed legislators from as far back as the Ancient Greeks, got more complex with the demise of feudalism and the beginning of capitalism and has been a political football ever since modernism took hold of western civilization. For inexplicable reasons. the question of which comes first, community development or economic development, remains as hotly debated as the chicken or the egg.
I bring this issue up because recently I heard an economic development organization board member telling practitioners at a strategic planning session that if they are doing community development then they are not doing economic development. This kind of either/or thinking is from a misplaced belief that the economic developers main responsibility is economic development, not community development. I think that it is finally time to end this inaccurate distinction and unproductive debate.
Since the late 20th century we have defined these professions very differently and very separately. Economic development is defined as the creation of wealth via the establishment and promotion of businesses. Obviously, economic developers care about investment. They use tools like tax credits and abatements and other incentives to either recruit, expand or retain a business and use quantitative measurements like numbers of jobs to gauge progress.
Community development seeks to improve things like social capital and the local environment. Those factors are the reasons why people choose to live in a specific community because they are seeking good schools, good parks, good roads, good housing and a certain civic zest. Community developers care about resources. Community developers use funding tools to invest in social programs, the maintenance of infrastructure, environmental protection, improved education and leadership development. Community developers use qualitative measurements such as studying behavioral change and telling anecdotal success stories.
Simply put, economic development seeks good jobs and community development seeks good people. But where can we possibly draw a line between the two subjects of jobs and people? And if we try to, and we certainly have tried for decades, what does such a line serve to further improving the circumstances of both jobs and people?
We need to rethink these rusty definitions of the professions that are based on tools, outcomes and the antiquated mind sets of elected officials and stakeholders. We need to remove the comma between community and economic development and replace it with a “forward slash” so that communities can move forward with a consistent and comprehensive strategy. The acts required to build sustainable communities are not either/or. We need a merging of both professions aimed at community betterment and economic improvement at the local level. We need to stop debating funding one at the expense of the other or using some kind of imaginary yardstick of which is the greater priority. The goal of each profession is not to create jobs or resources but to create healthy communities so that job creation can take place and have those two areas continue to successfully loop again and again.
A key element of our job as professionals is to help educate elected officials and other stakeholders about how certain activities within community/economic development fit within the larger framework of improving the community’s economic base and the quality of life of the local residents.
Community/economic developers are all part of a wheel heading in the same direction. As Luna Lovegood, the dreamy dotty witch from the Harry Potter stories put it when asked the chicken-or-the-egg question: “A circle has no beginning.” Once elected officials and stakeholders agree with that kind of an answer for economic/community development we can, in a nutshell (or an eggshell), go back to pondering the real important issues, such as why did the chicken cross the road.