On Feb. 14th, in room 421 of Pray-Harrold, students from the University of Applied Sciences, Kehl, Germany presented their research on local economic development.
Also in attendance were students from Eastern Michigan University who participated in the joint seminar. I was invited by EMU’s Department of Political Science as students from both schools discussed topics such as infrastructure investment, community cooperatives and financial incentives.
One presentation in particular, titled “Amenities (quality of life) as determining factors in economic development,” was insightful. German students, who led the discussion, said that municipalities should be flexible and competent, supportive of businesses and reliable in the supply of services such as parks and recreation. The last line lends itself to a simple conclusion, you have to build a city where people want to live – a place with a park, community activities and overall safety.
Employers look for locales where they can draw from the labor pool and where there employees will want to live should they relocate. This puts tax policy back into its proper context. That is, it is one factor, not the only factor in how businesses make decisions.
The trajectory of local economic development as a practice has been that at first it was no practice at all. It wasn’t the profession that it is now. In the 1980s and 1990s, it became about enterprise zones, a supposed panacea for cities in the Rust Belt, a place where businesses were free from many taxes and rules. This was a dismal failure.
It further devolved when communities started to offer tax abatement and other financial incentives to businesses, to steal them away from their neighbors. Instead of the kind of economic competition we think of, where whoever has the better product wins (or in the case of cities whoever has the better business climate), it became who could hand out subsidies faster.
States and localities had started to learn their lesson, but then Richard Florida, an economist who writes for The Atlantic, convinced every city they could become the next Silicon Valley. That all they had to do was be cool, to attract the “creative class” – those people that San Franciscans now hate because they are driving up the cost of rent.
All of these practices were unsustainable. It appears that sustainability has come to matter. Livability matters. Parks matter.
The city of Ypsilanti does not have a Department of Parks and Recreation. That station was eliminated and done away with after the city found itself in the position that most did after the recession, without money.
Now city leaders, who I wish were present at the seminar, have to think about what are the amenities that the city has to offer. Why would anybody live here?
I do not ask that sarcastically or with derision. The city and certainly the next mayor will have to consider that question. It’s reputation is that of an unsafe place to be, and per capita income is lower than nearby communities.
The answer is not that the city of Ypsilanti has nothing to offer. It does. But it will have to find a way to present that to the public. Businesses won’t thrive where people do not thrive.
Entrepreneurs want to locate and build themselves up in places where they can stay and integrate themselves into the community.
The city of Ypsilanti has a Master Plan, a plan that will make the city more livable, but many factors need to be improved upon. The commuter rail system that is chartered to come online in 2015 will link the city up to other places and allow it to show outsiders what it has to offer. It just needs to provide them with a reason to stay.
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