Let’s Redefine Economic Development

In many places one of two approaches are taken: Business or Residential.

A business first approach might look like hiring an Economic Development Director to go out and recruit a large anchor business – something big like an IBM R&D facility. This provides a huge tax revenue boost, it also serves as a magnet for hundreds or thousands of new residents, thus necessitating residential development and spurring growth. If you center this on a certain area – think The Pearl in Portland – you can transform a “dead zone” into a neighborhood.

The Residential first approach might look like adopting a Community Renewal Area and using the public/private partnership tools it features to create incentives to developers to start building housing – the city might buy a lot, do environmental cleanup, and then sell the lot for cheap to a developer. Cleanup being done already saves the developer money, and makes a project more attractive to a bank being asked to loan money to the developer in that environmental cleanup is a crap-shoot, because you never really know what you’ll find until you start, and so you never know what clean-up will cost.

In Olympia, we’ve sort of done some of this, but we don’t have a really clear path we’re on. As the political winds have shifted over time, so too has the direction of our economic development strategy. This scattered approach hasn’t really gotten us anywhere so far, and we’re lucky to be seeing the residential developments we’re seeing right now in our downtown. That’s purely thanks to Walker John having the vision to go for it. Our City government can’t take credit for it.

I don’t think we’re attracting any big companies any time soon. Losing Toyota to Tumwater is a huge blow and shows that we’re not providing an environment conducive to supporting large business. If we’re not going to start doing that, then we’ve got to make another plan. We’ve got a great cultural arts community here, for instance. Theater groups, music, and stand-up comedy could be a huge driver if we choose to support them. Economic development can be done on a neighborhood level, and we can foster a quirky, funky, local, independent Downtown and have it be thriving – i.e., do something about the quality of life issues we see, support our small businesses, and generally plan for a healthy future where our Downtown continues to be the cultural hub for the nearly half a million people in Thurston, Mason, Lewis, Grays Harbor, and south Pierce counties.

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