State of the City Speeches Reveal Push for Inclusive Economic Development

Getty Image

This year’s National League of Cities analysis of State of the City speeches reaffirms that mayors are optimistic about the growth of their local economies, and also that cities are developing economic development agendas to ensure this prosperity is widespread.

It makes sense that mayors are feeling positive about the state of their cities. Municipal budgets in many regions are returning to pre-Recession levels. Jobs gains and business growth are on the rise. Overall, crime is down, and local housing markets are improving. However, recent studies about the income inequality and socioeconomic disparity in cities are worrisome, and likely the driving force behind the mayoral push we’re seeing for more equity and inclusion, particularly in economic development.

More than half (55 percent) of the mayors referenced recent job gains as an economic win for their cities. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mayor Kip Holden said, “Today, we’re at a record level of jobs in our parish. I could tell you about the more than 7,000 jobs created, or the $327 million in new payroll.” Muriel Bowser, Mayor of Washington, D.C., acknowledged local employment growth reached 1,000 new jobs in her city. Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts, touted that the workforce in his city grew by 15 percent in the last year.

At the same time, mayors of nearly one third (30 percent) of cities described workforce development efforts to help fill these new employment opportunities, often with the goal of inclusive job readiness. As San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer explained in his speech, “The impact of this skills gaps is particularly harsh on low income communities – especially for our young adults.” Apprenticeships and on-the-job training, vocational programs, and alternative education were put forth by mayors as policy solutions that will help level the playing field in terms of accessing well-paying jobs in their communities. Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Andrew Ginther summarized this approach well by saying, “[A] college degree is not the only road to the middle class. There are many different paths to success.”

A large number of state of the city speeches also highlight the strength of local business environments, and feature city programs proactively ensuring minority and female small business owners are thriving in this period of growth. Overall, business growth was mentioned by a third (33 percent) of mayors, and 22 percent of speeches highlighted local small businesses. In particular, mayors shared how their cities are becoming more business-friendly by streamlining processes and providing more business services online, such as business license applications. In Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Stephen Benjamin shared in his speech, “We will be expanding our online offerings for business — where now, for the first time ever, business licenses can be acquired through our city’s website, and soon, the entire building permit process will be available in a single, seamless online system.”

In this current climate where businesses are opening and expanding, mayors are cognizant that all businesses should have an equal chance at success. That’s why several cities are implementing procurement programs that encourage local businesses to apply for city contracts. Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, Minnesota, said in her speech, “We intend to expand the number of local businesses in our purchasing pool, and make renewed efforts to ensure that local area businesses know about bid opportunities. We’ll lead an effort to identify local vendors (particularly minority and women-owned businesses) who want to be notified by the city about purchasing opportunities. And then we’ll mentor those businesses on how to navigate the city’s contracting process.”

In Jersey City, New Jersey, Mayor Steven Fulop noted the city’s new Office of Diversity and Inclusion would spearhead similar efforts to assist minority and women-owned businesses with accessing city contacts. Mayor Fulop said in his speech, “It is our hope that this initiative will encourage the growth of our minority and women-owned businesses, while also working to foster inclusive neighborhoods and increase the diversity of the city’s small businesses.”

As the 2016 State of the Cities report describes, these mayoral speeches help forecast the future priorities of cities. It’s welcomed news that so many local economic development agendas are giving attention to equity and inclusion. It is our hope that even more cities join this movement and strive to do what Syracuse, New York, Mayor Stephanie Minor calls “creat[ing] a concentration of opportunity to combat our concentration of poverty.”

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about infrastructure.

About the Author: Emily Robbins is Principal Associate for Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter @robbins617.