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Basics of Economic Development: Takeaways for Boundary Waters Connect

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

This fall I had the opportunity to attend a Basics of Economic Development course offered by the Economic Development Association of Minnesota on behalf of Boundary Waters Connect. Let me share with you a bit of what I learned:

Professionals in the field of economic development must concern themselves with place-making initiatives. Place-making is ultimately about improving the quality of life of local residents. Place-making initiatives can take many forms. For example, it could take the shape of spotlighting the historic locations and ethnic heritage unique to a community. It could also be the creation of public spaces or programs that promote the health, happiness, and well-being of residents. Contributing positively to place-making efforts within northeast Minnesota’s Wilderness-edge communities is a primary objective of Boundary Waters Connect.

Availability of talent is now the most important location criterion for developers and companies. A strong understanding of who our community is and what we are good at is essential to talent attraction. In other words, we have to build the type of community that people want to live in, and must be able to easily answer why someone should want to live and work in our community. We need to understand what amenities our community offers, and how new residents can navigate and cultivate a sense of belonging in our community. Experts in the field of economic development project this focus on place-making and talent attraction (/new resident recruitment) for at least a decade. This fact affirms the ongoing development of Boundary Waters Connect’s Hello Neighbor programs and services.

Additionally, professionals in the field of economic development must also concern themselves with talent/workforce development. Workforce development is an education issue at heart; it’s about strengthening the local talent pool. So then it becomes a matter of understanding what programs should be put in place to have the greatest impact and address the greatest community needs. Such endeavors involve making good use of business data and retention surveys, and having regular interaction with local business leaders to understand their workforce needs. For which positions do they have the most difficulty hiring and/or retaining? What do they project their needs will be in 3 years?

Currently Boundary Waters Connect contributes to workforce development by offering Strengths workshops to area residents and local businesses. A strengths-orientation can positively impact how one works, how they structure their time, and their understanding of self. In fact, focusing on strength is proven to lead individuals and teams of people to be more engaged in their work, and therefore more productive. These outcomes give participants greater confidence in themselves and their work, and a stronger workforce means a stronger economy.

Leaders in innovative economic development are often found within BIPOC communities. One such economic developer leading projects in North Minneapolis quipped, “Want drastic change? Do something drastically different! Everyone in the ecosystem has to think differently.”

Changes must be made in favor of economic equity. Now more than ever economic development professionals are being asked to think about where, how, and for whom we are building wealth. It is in the best interest of rural communities such as Ely and other Wilderness-edge towns for all residents to have real access to resources. As such, communities are called upon to invest in local leaders. We must ask ourselves: how can we increase community members’ access to capital? Note that in this context, capital comes in multiple forms, including real financial capital, as well as symbolic forms of capital such as knowledge capital, and social capital.

Ultimately, development is about finding the money(oftentimes in massive sums). This is incredibly difficult work that necessitates partnering with other agencies and organizations, using existing programs, seeking grants and other methods of raising equity. It can also mean going above and beyond to create programs to fill needs. As one economic development consultant, Carolyn Chrisman, put it, “The future of rural America is bright as long as community stakeholders work together, embrace change and innovation, and provide the leadership necessary to progress.”

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