I debated when to write this article. Given the timing of our monthly newsletter (usually in the last week of every month), I was either going to be a tad early or too late. Every year, our friends at the International Economic Development Council organize a series of events and outreach to celebrate “Economic Development Week.” In 2023, that week is May 8 through May 12. I mean, if every day is a celebration of something, we economic developers can have our moment in the sun, too, right? And we aren’t even asking for a full week – just the five days of the work week. The weekend is yours to celebrate as you see fit! So, what is it about economic development and the professionals who engage in it that are worthy of recognition?
Can I be honest with you for a moment? For the first 32 years of my life, I had no idea what economic development even was. I had no idea it was a discipline, nor did I know people actually had jobs in the field. But I was looking for work and answered a help wanted ad in the paper (back when those were a thing) for an “Economic Development Specialist” for the City of Peoria. I guess I said enough right things in the interview, or possibly was just the best of a lousy group of candidates, and they offered me the job. The rest, as they say, is history. I remember walking into the historic Peoria City for my first day, climbing to the fourth floor, and then sitting at my new desk, unsure of what to do. I was lucky to have a great mentor in Craig Hullinger, then the City’s Director of Economic Development, and great co-workers like Susan Schlupp and Nicole Fulton Wilson. They showed me the ropes and shared with me some of the distinct skills it took to do the job well. But I also quickly learned how vast the field of economic development really was.
Economic development is a vital service to a city, a region, and a state. To be clear, I am not equating it to police or fire service or even fundamental public services like snow removal and trash pick-up. But despite what some will say, economic development is an essential service of any local government. A city, county, or state always needs to be open to investment, and it is economic developers who help to nurture that investment, shepherd it through local processes, and ensure that it grows. Economic developers work with local businesses to discover barriers to growth and knock them down or to find opportunities for expansion and ways to make them happen. Economic developers work with citizens to identify needs like grocery stores and work to develop solutions. Economic developers make connections between employers and the workforce development system to ensure the two are working together. Economic developers work with individuals seeking to fulfill their dreams of starting their own businesses. Economic developers keep an eye on local rules, regulations, and processes to make sure they are not stifling business growth.
While there are “official” economic developers, like the eight people that make up Team GPEDC, the other truth is that economic development is the ultimate team sport. I am fond of saying that GPEDC is too small to make much of an impact, but by leveraging our relationships, we can move the needle. We have amazing partners like Discover Peoria, our regional chambers of commerce, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, the Black Business Alliance, and the Small Business Development Center. If asked, they might not consider themselves “economic developers,” but they get a bit of this week’s limelight, too. Tourism, planning, business engagement, etc., are all part of the recipe. Our elected and business leaders are also economic developers: They help set the course for a community and create an environment that either facilitates or discourages investment. And even other public servants like police officers can be thought of as economic developers. Who wants to live in an unsafe neighborhood or open a business on a crime-infested street? It’s all connected.
It might seem trite to have an Economic Development Week. But think of it as a celebration of both the professionals who wake up every day and think about how to improve their communities best, as well as all the other pieces that work together to make that happen. If you see me during this time, feel free to wish me a happy holiday, but know I will say it right back to you. Happy Economic Development Week, if only a few days early.