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Recent reporting by the New York Times has highlighted the amount of taxpayer dollars that state and local governments spend on incentives to attract and retain businesses. At the extreme, Texas spends around $19 billion, or $759 per capita, and the poverty-stricken West Virginia spends $1.57 billion, or a huge $845 per capita! From a community development standpoint, one has to ask: Does this spending bring a return? And the answer is often a firm “no.” Companies are taking advantage of the subsidy game. Some companies are exerting large tax incentives by promising to stay in communities for decades, but leaving only after a few years. These incentives are often for political reasons. Elected officials want to show that they are keeping campaign promises to create jobs. But also, the incentives are often strategies in well-meaning butmisguided economic development plans.
Throughout our nation, capable officials are trying to better their communities, but they are often asking the wrong type of questions. Instead of focusing on assets, these officials are searching for what their communities are lacking. Driven by this approach, communities spend large amounts of resources holding neighborhood meetings, conducting analyses, and trying to implement plans based on the assumption of need. This leads communities to develop strategies that seek to attract businesses and industry that they most likely will never lure. Communities offer tax incentives that may at times harm local businesses and taking money away from other crucial areas of government, such as education. The focus on need, also, causes communities to have a negative self-image, which hampers meaningful development. A simple refocus of discussion toward assets and away from needs can abate these problems.
The Assets Model of Development
In Asset Building & Community Development, Gary Paul Green and Anna Haines argue for community development to focus on asset-building. The asset model is comprised of a few key principles. First, there is a focus on community sustainability. Development is not merely about raw growth of jobs, but rather a holistic improvement of a community’s social, political, and economic institutions. Therefore, community development is also not just economic development. The improvement of economic institutions is an important part of a development plan, but this goal should not be achieved at the expense of a community’s other institutions. Lastly, the main focus should be a community’s assets, not its needs.
Surveying the relevant literature, Green and Haines define a community’s assets as being physical, human, social, financial, environmental, political, and cultural. These assets should be viewed as forms of capital in a community that can be cultivated. Many assets are clear to communities. For instance, communities near beautiful mountain ranges or coastlines clearly have a great deal of environmental capital. However, some communities may not realize their true assets and are often following growth-centered strategies that damage their long-term capital. To realize its assets, a community needs to involve its citizens in the process of vision-building.
The Role of Vision-Building
Vision-building must be a process where all members of a community, not just elite stakeholders, are able to participate in a meaningful way toward achieving a shared goal. As Eric Damian Kelly and Barbara Becker write, vision-building is following “an overarching goal that controls the entire process.” The goal in many of our communities needs to be the cultivation of assets.
The city of Greensburg, working in conjunction with the Kentucky League of Cities, has developed comprehensive strategies to grow its assets. The city is rural with population of only around 2,300 individuals, but at one time, the community was home to local factories for Fruit of the Loom, Anaconda, and Double Cola Bottling. But these companies, due to changes to the economy, have left, leaving the community with a small number of local jobs. If this small community developed a strategy based on needs, the local officials and citizens would focus mostly on the loss of these companies. As the community recognizes, they cannot “control” these economic trends. Therefore, they focused on what they can control—their assets. The community contains a wealth of outdoor amenities and historical landmarks. For instance, the Green River is nearby, and the community wants to develop ecotourism strategies involving this outdoor amenity. Additionally, the community wants to focus on growing local businesses, developing the downtown, and implementing an ambitious plan to attract investment for a service-based college.
The assets model can also help urban communities. During the mid-1900s, Savannah, Georgia allowed development that defaced many of the city’s famous squares. Many of the original squares became office buildings and parking decks. Today, the city is implementing assets-based projects to reclaim this historical capital. One of these projects is City Market. The development is located close to Ellis Square, which historically was the location were local framers and merchants met to trade. The current City Market is comprised of arts and cultural commerce and local restaurants.
Vision-building is also helping other communities reimagine themselves. Cities in the rust belt have lost many of their manufacturing assets and are not going to regain their former economic clout and population size. However, many of these cities are developing needs-based strategies that seek to regain former glory, but others are building more realistic visions. For instance, Youngstown, Ohio has a vision of itself as a community that will be smaller and more sustainable than it was in the past.
In my community development courses, I encourage my Master of Public Administration (MPA) students to focus on the asset model of development. As I tell them, this model does not turn a blind eye to the needs of our communities, but rather addresses those problems by focusing first on what works, instead of what doesn’t work. Next month, we will discuss more communities that are seeking to develop their assets.
William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the department of government at Eastern Kentucky University.