Economic Development Advice from the Pros: Think Global, Act Local and Rally Together
Fresh off a webinar put on by the Northeast Economic Developers Association (NEDA) on April 21st, I thought I’d share my takeaways and thoughts as the city of Newburyport and the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce are actively engaged in an economic development plan as part of the city’s master planning process.
The title of the webinar was “Understanding Innovation & Entrepreneur Eco-Systems for Economic Development” and the presenters were: Maria Meyers, Founder, U.S. SourceLink; Catherine S. Renault, PhD, Innovation Policyworks, LLC; and Don Macke, Co-Founder and Co-Director of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. The one-hour webinar was enlightening and encouraging on many levels. The good news is Newburyport’s assets, which include human capital, location, and connection to trends, are very positive. The challenge appears to be, like it is in so many other communities, balancing a combined government and volunteer effort to organize around and affect change while agreeing on a common set of core values and beliefs. For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to state up front what my beliefs are, and I invite others to join in and offer their own points of view, so that we might make this a thread that helps become a catalyst for progress and change.
As a marketing and branding professional, I’ve always thought that Newburyport’s reputation as a historic shipbuilding and manufacturing hub is an extremely under-utilized asset. While I commend our Custom House Maritime Museum for their hard work and dedication in keeping our local history alive, it’s far from enough when one realizes what an important part of our community this element is. I also believe that Newburyport’s burgeoning commitment to being “green” is worth continual investment and exposure. This has nothing to do with my politics, by the way. I’m a firmly committed Independent (if there is such a thing). This is about opportunity and social consciousness. Finally, if one looked under a map of the world at Newburyport it would show deep roots of cultural and economic strength. Roots connected to a legacy of worldwide maritime commerce, medicine anchored by Anna Jaques Hospital, industry represented by the work of the Newburyport Area Industrial Development group (NAID), and roots to hospitality and waterside tourism as represented by our charming stores, restaurants, museum, inns, and annual events that draw people (with their wallets) to our community. I’ve coined the phrase “Newburyport―Historic, Green, and Growing” as my guiding thread while I put forth my community volunteering efforts.
With this tidy and handy thread in mind, I plucked two tidbits from the webinar:
1. We are not Boston, Austin or even Portsmouth. We are the city of Newburyport, Massachusetts. Our assets are different. Our local banks are the “investors.” Our small, one-to-five-person businesses and work-from-home workforce represent a huge part of our business base and labor market. And while we have North Shore Community College, there are no major university/incubator/innovation centers that organically create offspring, etc., etc. The point: We have to overcome our small-city limitations by focusing on other strengths, as opposed to expecting similar organic results that are achieved in other places.
2. The ecosystem of our community matters. Building on point one, as one looks at economic growth, we should be asking “Growth of what?” Every city has a baseline. In my opinion, Newburyport’s baseline is as I’ve stated above. To realize the value of this in terms of being an ecosystem, we must nourish it. Here are a few ideas and strategies:
a. Create a common calendar of events—whether the chamber or city takes the lead the benefit to the community, and to fostering collaboration, of a group calendar is extremely high. The data support it as does first-hand observation I’ve had personally.
b. Support “Meetups”—Chamber mixers are a start, but there’s value in fostering a meetup mentality around the region that covers key business issues, growth issues, and necessary interconnections, that may or may not include Chamber members. This could be a way for the Chamber to say “Hey, yes, we are a membership organization. But we’re also a community organization.” And wink, wink, nod, nod, it may be a great way to attract new members.
c. Make commitments and see them through: Newburyport-economic-development2_042516Leaders and volunteers in and around any community endeavor must never bite off more than they can chew. They also need to resolve to get to an end game. Nothing plagues a community more than long-drawn-out “ideas.”
d. Think beyond the idea of a first-floor co-working space at Minco’s future One Boston Way Smart Growth district apartment building and pick up the playbook used by nationally recognized commercial real estate innovator wework (www.wework.com). By keeping our finger on the pulse of the future of the way people work, we’ll be considered a place to come to work. What do you say @New England Development? Can we make something like this happen on a broader scale in the ‘port?
e. Recreation is key. For the love of God, can we please stop cherishing the thought of a soon to be completed rail trail and finish it already so we can move to the trails in the city forest and common pasture? Have you seen the vistas out there? Of course not, you’ll be covered in poison ivy. But bring in a few goats and let’s get people moving all around this wonderful city from Plum Island to the interstate. There’s nothing more motivating than seeing another person taking care of themselves and enjoying the great outdoors.
f. Bring a buddy’s work to work (in Newburyport). Have a friend with a business somewhere else? Have a favorite shop in another town? Be an ambassador. Many of us also work at some pretty great companies, too. What say you REI, Timberland, Whole Foods, and Medtech guys drop some serious hints with the boss about Newburyport, eh?
g. Put a solar panel array on your roof. It’s like a hat. It’s functional and keeps you (and us) looking smart.
h. Invest in Plum Island. Save the rusty bolt and sewer debate for another day and consider the vitality of a re-invigorated and active Plum Island point and Plum Island Center. In their heyday, these places were a mecca for family recreation, enjoyment and commerce.
The final bit of advice I took away from the webinar was that even small rural communities today have to think on a global scale. High-speed Internet connectivity, ecommerce, global promotion of your resources and businesses, and general goodness oozing out of your community online is just good juju that attracts people far and wide. Who’s got a friend in Vietnam who’d like to come for a visit and stay for a lifetime? Maybe open a new restaurant here? We could sure use the diversity in the food and fabric of our community.