Even before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world’s economies on its head and changed the way we examine economic policy, economic developers had begun to diversify their efforts to improve the economic well-being and quality of life in communities.
The days of only chasing smokestacks — trying to convince large enterprises to move their existing jobs to a new community — are behind us. And for good reason. Just ask the communities that lured in those factories and plants, only to have them shuttered years later, leaving a crater in those local economies.
Forward thinking economic developers need not focus on hunting and gathering but rather growing and fostering. And the communities that will thrive in a post-COVID economy will be those that invested in innovators and entrepreneurs. Rather than expend public resources on incentives for large firms to bring existing jobs to town, foster an environment for founders to build the next large enterprise and create new jobs.
Now is as good a time as ever for economic developers and entrepreneurial support organizations to lean in and lift up existing and would-be startups in their community. There is much to look forward to on the horizon, regardless of where in the state it is. Most will look to the economic ecosystem that was built up around retail, protein, and trucking in northwest Arkansas. But now consider the burgeoning steel industry of northeast Arkansas, aeronautic and defense industries of south-central Arkansas, the potential lithium industry in south Arkansas, and beyond — there’s opportunity for economies to rise and prosper in support of central industry drivers in nearly every direction.
That’s not to say large enterprises won’t play a role in this modern landscape. In fact, engaged and invested enterprises can help accelerate the growth of startups and scaleups while also meeting some of their own needs, solving some of their own pesky problems, and lifting the entire economy in the process.
Enterprise-ready accelerator programs, such as Fuel, take exactly that approach by engaging enterprise partners, learning what problems they face and how they have already tried to solve them, in helping to narrow down and identify the startup solution that may be a good fit.
Enterprises don’t engage with startups not because they don’t see the value in the solutions they are creating, but because in many cases, they don’t have the time to seek out and vet them. Likewise, many startups won’t know how to best engage an enterprise and even fewer will understand what solutions they’re seeking.
Savvy economic developers and accelerator program leaders can step in and facilitate those relationships to the benefit of both parties, bringing value to those on both sides of the table and driving positive outcomes within the businesses and the local economy. Revenues increase. Jobs are created. Everyone wins.
Of course, there will always be a place for recruitment when it comes to large scale economic development. Those wins will always make the biggest headlines — this business agrees to put this plant in this town, brings with it this many jobs. And that’s important, too. Not making the headlines, though, are the wins within communities when a startup begins generating real revenue, creates new jobs, and solves problems for a community and its industries.
Those wins don’t fill voids, but rather, build pillars that support an ecosystem that can sustain economic prosperity beyond the headlines of today.