The old model of economic development in cities is giving way to a newer, place-based version, attendees of the Arkansas Municipal League’s Annual Convention in Little Rock were told Thursday (June 16).
Daniel Hintz, chief experience architect with Bentonville-based The Velocity Group and a former executive director of Downtown Bentonville and Downtown Fayetteville, said that, traditionally, economic developers have tried to encourage development by using incentives. With place-based economic development, a community focuses on the assets it already has.
“It doesn’t take writing a check to anybody,” he said. “It doesn’t take anything else. What it takes is you knowing who is doing really good work in your community and pushing that out the door. And what ends up happening is people say, ‘I want to be a part of that good story.’”
He said traditional economic development strategies have been based on jobs, site specific strategies and the production of goods. Place-based economic development is about attracting people and letting them decide how they fit into the economy.
“If people feel like they can make something happen in their community and they’re making a living, and if all of a sudden, that doesn’t work, they can move to something else, they can move to something else within your community,” he said. “If you’re a one-trick pony community and they’re out of a job, they’re going to leave.”
Hintz said great places have four qualities.
• Safety, which is not just about a lack of crime but about giving people the ability to explore who they are and what they want to become.
• Selection, which is the ability to find the things people want, such as friends, dates and business connections.
• Service, which is the opportunity to get involved, invest in the community, and to care.
• Surprise, which includes new businesses and new public art pieces.
He said a place’s quality of life is the most important concept in economic development. He referenced a 2014 survey by the American Planning Association where two-thirds of respondents and 74% of millennials thought investing in schools, transportation choices and walkable areas was preferable to investing in traditional economic development strategies. He said 44% of Generation Xers and baby boomers and 55% of millennials polled thought they would move in the next five years.
“People are going to move to where they feel like they can make a difference; they can get involved; they can raise a family; they can find a mate,” he said.
Hintz said planners should consider a new way of approaching development: revenue per acre rather than revenue per lot or household. He said cities will get a better tax base from dense, walkable areas. Drawing on his experiences in Northwest Arkansas, Hintz encouraged attendees to think regionally. Cities there created “experience districts” covering a four-six block area – no more, no less – and gave those areas a focus.
“It’s not about the size of your community,” he said. “It’s the intentionality of your decision making that will impact what happens to your economies.”
He said communities should think of planning their cities as if designing a “theater of cool”: Design the stage, or the boundaries of a particular area; build a set, or the streetscape and grid; place the props, including businesses and public art; and finally, engage the actors, or the people.
“All we’re doing is creating a place for people to activate and live their best possible lives,” he said.