Friday, September 14, 2012

Place-Based Economic Development

I'm not a fan of place-based strategies to improve communities. Invest in people, not places. Kalamazoo's spin on that idea:

“Other communities invest in things like arenas or offer tax incentives for businesses or revitalize their waterfronts,” says Michelle Miller-Adams, a political scientist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, which is located in the city. “The Kalamazoo Promise tries to develop the local economy with a long-term investment in human capital that is intended to change the town from the bottom up.” In this regard, the Promise can be seen as an exorbitant ante, staked by private funds, that calls to Kalamazoo’s better angels. It stokes hometown pride, prods citizens to engage and pulls businesses and their leaders into the public sphere. To date, Miller-Adams says, Kalamazoo’s Promise has inspired donors in 25 other cities and towns around the United States — including Pittsburgh, New Haven and El Dorado, Ark. — to start, or consider starting, similar programs.

I would call that "people-based economic development." The above article terms it as place-based. The distinction is important. It's about goals, changing the town from the bottom up. Put all your eggs in the human capital basket. Improve your hometown.

The Kalamazoo Promise aligns individual and community interests. People-based economic development can benefit a place. By extension, so can outmigration. Place-based economic development is designed to stop that; plug the brain drain. Such an approach is destructive, not constructive. Urban amenities are more a distraction, than a fix. But building a park or a bike path is a lot easier than tackling educational reform. Results are faster, more tangible. Ribbon cuttings make for great political theater. The goal is a better place, not better people. That's a shame.


Brian Kelsey said...

I like your distinction of people-based vs place-based. But I wonder if you are hitting on a more fundamental question about the role of local government outside of just economic development--is it to serve people or places? Ideally, I think it should be both, and I think both is possible with initiatives like the one you describe here. The program invests in residents and, indirectly, the place because I would argue that it makes the community more attractive regardless of which residents benefiting from the program stay or leave (or boomerang). I suppose you could engage in the same exercise with education or other public goods at state or federal levels. It's an interesting debate. Local governments are, by nature, place based. Until we are willing to explore alternative revenue models for funding public services at the local level, I think place-based is here to stay.

Jim Russell said...


Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I agree with you that the Kalamazoo Promise benefits place. Local government can serve a place via people-based approaches. My point about brain drain is that we haven't tried to think of ways a place could benefit from outmigration. Brain drain is a problem that must be solved. That's the extent of the policy thinking. Communities can generate ROI on outmigration without restructuring revenue streams. The main thing standing in the way of policy innovation is place-based thinking.

BrianTH said...

I think a good argument can be made that bike paths are consistent with people-based economic development. Bike commuters tend to be more productive, bikers in general are more healthy, and so forth.

I think the general point here is that while a shift in emphasis may have some practical implications, it won't necessarily entirely eliminate use of all of the "place-based" tools.

Jim Russell said...

I'm not arguing for the elimination of place-based tools. I'm lamenting place-centrism. I don't think we should build bike paths for the purpose of attraction/retention, the "cool cities" approach. We should build bike paths to enhance individual economic development. Some places do a better job of developing people. Bike paths may or may not be a part of that equation.