The Job That Never Ends

Beating the local business community's drum is a lot harder than it used to be.
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Imagine you're a juggler, and the number of balls you have to keep in play is doubled with every toss. That's what has been happening to many U.S. economic development agencies, says Kurt Chilcott, chairman of the International Economic Development Council.

Historically, economic development focused on bringing jobs into a region. But in the past 20 years, their roles have expanded to include working with existing businesses, helping create new firms and improving the assets that attract companies to a region, explains Chilcott. As if that weren't enough, the September 11 attacks and the recent recession have officials scrambling to buoy their economies. Increasingly, many say they're looking in their own backyards for business--but do their actions bear out that claim?

"The combination of the dotcom bust and Boeing layoff cost [this region] about 30,000 jobs," says Ben Wolters of the Seattle Office of Economic Development. One of the region's major small-business industries--tourism--also took a nosedive. In response, the city began a marketing campaign to bring tourists back and shifted its focus from helping Internet companies grow to assisting a fledgling biotech sector.

But the message has been slow getting out to businesses that already call Seattle their home. Daryl King, whose Seattle bed and breakfast, Bacon Mansion, lost $30,000 in business after September 11, says reservations from people driving into the city are abnormally high, but he can't directly attribute the uptick to the city marketing campaign.

In Dallas, severe budget cuts have forced officials to become more creative. Director Harry Swanson says the Dallas Economic Development Department is now handling business counseling online and is concentrating on new franchise development. Entrepreneurs there believe the efforts to attract new businesses come at their expense, says David Pinkus, president of Small Business United Texas.

In North Carolina, the situation is different. Representatives from the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) and North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry (NCCBI) say that over the years, their members have been instrumental in helping shape economic development policy. "There's a good bit of collaboration among the agencies," says the CED's Lisa Rowe-Ralls. In fact, she says the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which handles economic development for the Wake County region, recently sponsored the CED's venture conference.

This obviously is an effort to replace thousands of lost telecom jobs with an emerging bioscience industry. But Wake County Economic Development executive director Ken Atkins says they also spend more time (about 50 percent, compared to 20 or 25 percent in the past) nurturing existing businesses.

Can economic development agencies change their stripes, or is the talk merely political babble? Entrepreneurial groups agree that only time will tell.

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Edition: June 2017

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