Regional Partnerships, Planning Key to Economic Development

March 29, 2011

by Will McGahan 

City economies are often measured by how well their greater metropolitan regions perform. Any effort by municipal leaders to establish regional economic development goes a long way in building stable markets. Given that private industry is not confined to municipal boundaries, it is important that local leaders partner with surrounding communities and other stakeholders to put more tools in their tool box for economic success.

Steve Weathers, president and CEO of Regional Growth Partnership based in Northwest Ohio, offered thoughts on the characteristics of successful regional economic development, including place-based development, long-term visioning and constant reevaluation of goals. 

Playing to the strengths of a community is the best way to ensure success. Transforming a community into the next Silicon Valley sounds appealing, but is not realistic for most cities. Place-based development and using what a city already does well is the fastest way to success.

Evaluating the assets already existing in the region, such as a well-established road system or fiber optics networks, and partnering with other communities to use them as incentives to attract new industries or help existing businesses grow is an essential practice, according to Weathers.

Another way municipalities can act regionally is to compliment an existing industry. For example, if a particular community has a well established bio-medical industry, a surrounding community might focus on supporting and expanding the suppliers to that industry. This strategy has many advantages, including promoting stability of the industry in the region and making the region more attractive for future development of that industry. Another advantage to complimenting existing businesses is the development of trust among the communities working to build the sector.

Formal networks can often spur sustained regional economic development efforts. In addition to representatives from likeminded municipalities, these networks should include other stakeholders from the private sector, the academic community, and public and non-profit organizations. Each brings a different perspective, but all are vital to establishing a strong regional economy.

"City officials provide leadership and civic support, the private sector can identify critical areas of focus, the academic community helps develop a strong workforce as well as bringing a research capacity to the region, and other community groups can provide strategic support," said Weathers.

A key role for the network is the creation of a long-term strategy for the regional economy based on an accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the economy and a realistic vision for the future. A well-defined strategy can help communities in the region make critical decisions during difficult times, such as after a plant closure.

In the context of the strategy and with the support of the network, challenges about what do with the vacant space and displaced workers can become opportunities to build on the new vision. The success of the strategy is dependent on everyone knowing their role, continuing to keep an open dialogue, and reevaluating the plan every six months. Long-term visioning allows for new pieces to be added and subtracted as progress is made. 

One final piece of advice that Weathers offers is to accept change, because it will always happen. No one industry will remain dominant forever. Companies will relocate. Maintaining a long-term vision and being prepared for change will ensure a region stays strong and adapts well.

Details: For more information about the Regional Growth Partnership, contact Steve Weathers at weathers@rgp.org.