Economic Development Conference Focuses on Making Cities Great Places to Live and Work

November 21, 2011
by Cyndy Liedtke Hogan

The Economic Development Conference, one of four concurrent conferences at the Congress of Cities and Exposition in Phoenix, focused on how to keep and retain businesses while enhancing the quality of life for residents.

The concurrent conference's opening general session focused on local leadership in a global economy and featured former St. Petersburg, Fla., Mayor Rick Baker and Wichita, Kan., Mayor Carl Brewer. Both speakers discussed the experiences in their cities with attracting and keeping businesses and jobs.

"We are stuck in a rut in a lot of ways in our national economy and we seem to make a little progress and then fall back a little bit. I think cities are where the greatest impact is felt," Baker said. "I also think it is important for us to look at economic development and jobs in cities from a strategic perspective."

Baker noted two things city officials should look at.

One is to constantly improve the quality of life, with parks, schools, bike paths and public safety. Businesses look for these things.

"We should be working on every part of the city at the same time," Baker said. "No part of our city should be left behind."

The second component, Baker said, it to ensure a good, positive business environment where businesses can thrive. This includes:

• Lead from the top. The mayor should be the head economic development person in the city.

• The city's tax and regulatory environment have to be attractive to businesses and competitive with other cities. To that end, St. Petersburg worked to reduce the business tax rate. Regulations and permits can be streamlined to work better.

• Know the economic incentive portfolio for the state, county and city, as well as competitors.

• Play to your strength. Know business clusters and build from those. And don't forget about existing businesses. Most jobs come from existing, not new, businesses. Baker visited businesses on a regular basis when he was mayor.

"I always used to say I am unabashedly pro-business because I have not found a way to be pro-jobs without being pro-business," he said.

Brewer agreed with Baker about the importance of creating a good quality of life as part of attracting and retaining businesses.

"We must work hard and pull together as a community to promote and to preserve the businesses," Brewer said. "We must always be recruiting businesses, reclaiming businesses we have lost and retaining businesses."

Wichita, known as the "air capital of the world" because of its many aviation businesses, faced a number of layoffs when the recession hit. The city began looking at how to take care of those employees.

Wichita partnered with the county to build a training facility to re-train many of the workers laid off from the aviation industry. Some families had both parents facing layoffs.

The city invested in training and current businesses while also seeing what other cities were doing to help businesses grow and create more jobs.

"You must continue to be aggressive and take a bold stance," Brewer said, including offering incentives when necessary.

He added, "You must embrace the businesses you have ... bring everyone to the table and say, 'This is our community and we are going to work together to build our community.'"

In addition to training, Wichita also worked to revitalize its downtown. The city was also able to get a group of banks to work together to help businesses in the community grow. 

Brewer also suggested that cities bring young people to the table. In Wichita, young people said they wanted areas where they could work, live and play, often without a car.

Other highlights of the Economic Development Conference included sessions on making cities business friendly, attracting new investment and connecting local businesses to international markets.

Several sessions focused on small businesses. This included workshops on the relationship between immigrants and small businesses, supporting small businesses and financing for such businesses.