Friday, November 21, 2008

Delta Views Nov. 21


Nov. 21, 2008

A New Paradigm For Development
By Pete Johnson
The future of the Delta rests with its people and their communities, not with the federal government or state governments. But those of us at the Delta Regional Authority have a role to play in making sure communities achieve their potential. Understanding what makes communities flourish will be a key as we attempt to improve life in the 252 counties and parishes the DRA serves.
As we worked on a landmark update of our strategic development plan for the region, we quickly determined that the old term "quality of life" had become dated. "Quality of life" simply emphasizes the values of a community's existing population. We believe the concept of "quality of place" better accentuates those attributes that will attract fresh talent. In the knowledge-based economy of the new century, Delta communities must have creative programs to promote capital investment, economic diversification, leadership and entrepreneurship.
Much has been written about the importance of "quality of life" to the site-selection process. Communities nationwide have attempted to position themselves by touting their advantages in this regard -- good schools, safe streets, pleasant weather. Those factors are indeed important. But the concept of "quality of life" assumes that everyone thrives in the same environment. It assumes that all people are attracted to the same amenities. It assumes that the current residents' view of what makes a community a good place to live is shared by all. We know that's simply not the case in our diverse society.
By contrast, the concept of "quality of place" considers what's attractive to a range of residents, both old and new. "Quality of place" recognizes the benefits of change and diversity. It recognizes that one person's "good place to raise a family" might translate into "there's nothing to do in this town" for another person. "Quality of place" is about providing options, not just for current residents but also for those who might be future residents.
The DRA exists to help community leaders design creative programs that will spur growth. Many of the investments we've made in the eight years since the DRA was formed have been for infrastructure. Without proper infrastructure, growth isn't possible. It's not enough, however, to build a power plant or a wastewater treatment facility and then assume that growth will occur as a result. Infrastructure investment is most effective when it anticipates growth patterns, not when it tries to determine them. For decades, federal and state economic development grants have been used to support traditional infrastructure projects. When successful, these projects help stimulate economic growth. Too often, though, the job promises fall short. Industries don't relocate. Fully serviced industrial parks stand unused along major highway corridors.
At the same time, warehousing and distribution centers, along with mixed-use projects, show tremendous potential. Where economic development is market driven, real estate growth is rapid. To be effective with our DRA grant program, we must become more strategic when it comes to making spending decisions. We can no longer award grants just on the basis of assumed business attraction. The traditional "but for" clause -- "but for public participation, the private investment would not have occurred" -- is no longer adequate in the current economic climate. It must be replaced by the realization that DRA funds are most effective as a co-investment in projects that private investors have deemed worthy.
The underlying demographics of the American workforce are undergoing a seismic shift. As the baby boomer generation enters retirement age in significant numbers, employers will have to work harder to attract and retain talented workers. Many will respond by locating some of their operations offshore while downsizing other operations through technology and innovation. A primary strategy employed by U.S. and foreign-owned companies seeking to tap into the domestic talent pool -- especially for younger workers -- will be to locate operations in communities with a strong sense of place. Business executives increasingly recognize that communities that offer amenities will be the ones that attract smart workers. While no set definition of "quality of place" exists, the one common factor is a wide availability of choices in housing, entertainment, culture, recreation, retail and employment.
For Delta communities that already are struggling to retain people and businesses, adopting the "quality of place" philosophy will be crucial to their long-term economic competitiveness. Communities must invest in amenities that will make them more attractive to new residents if they're to survive. The DRA is committed to helping communities plan for and implement different strategies. Rather than simply awarding infrastructure grants, we will:
-- Support downtown revitalization efforts.
-- Provide planning grants for revitalization projects.
-- Support local-level grant research, writing and administrative training.
-- Work to improve the quality, safety and affordability of the housing stock
-- Support the construction and expansion of medical facilities.
-- Protect the region's environmental assets.
-- Support the development and marketing of entertainment, recreational and cultural assets.
-- Expand the application of green technologies.
Communities that are unwilling to embrace the emerging economic sectors will be at a competitive disadvantage. For the Delta, with its traditional agricultural and resource-based economy, diversification and innovation are crucial. Those of us at the DRA are committed to playing a role in transforming our region's economic base.
Pete Johnson of Clarksdale, Miss., is the federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority. He was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2001.


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