[Editor’s Note: A few years ago, Chris Robbins and other concerned residents formed an Economic Development Team in Southborough. A critical component of their mission was to help the town “reduce residential taxes and sustain the core services of the community by attracting, retaining, developing and expanding our business tax base.”*
To help with that effort, Robbins began analyzing the key components of local economies. This month he completed a paper outlining his vision for towns and cities to improve their economies.
He asked me to share it with readers. Because he clearly had Southborough in mind as worked through these issues, I agreed.]
All Economies Are Local
A Better Jobs and Growth Strategy for Towns and Cities
By Christopher Robbins
Massachusetts communities can no longer rely on state or federal aid to fill their budget gaps. Therefore, each municipality must take responsibility for its own economic fate.
Towns and cities are failing to take advantage of economic development opportunities and tax revenues. They don’t understand how to create the optimum number of local jobs, nor understand community metrics that determine their economic well-being. They lack knowledge about their industry clusters, especially about which are thriving or struggling. They do not know the decision makers at those enterprises—the people who pay business taxes and create jobs.
Governor Patrick’s Economic Development Policy and Strategic Plan, “Choosing to Compete in the 21st Century,” recommends that each municipality needs a “CEO” and team to create and implement an economic development plan for job growth. Many municipalities are forming economic development corporations or committees to encourage new business establishments, developing supportive customer service policies, and providing predictable efficient regulatory processes.
TechSandbox, an incubation center for technology and science startups, moved to Hopkinton after selectmen voted to waive building permit fees and explore a special tax deal—the kind of public-private partnership that is key to supporting small business, creating new jobs for the innovation economy, and fostering growth. Marlborough formed an Economic Development Corporation that works with municipal and private investors to foster economic development, job growth, and community revitalization.
To enjoy the benefits of a robust economy, each municipality must become a high performing, self-reliant economic engine operating on four cylinders: residential; business; public sector; and nonprofit. Each cylinder represents an indispensable component of the local and regional economy, fueling millions of dollars of activity through wages, the purchase of goods and services, and payment of taxes. To understand how these components influence our local and regional economy, municipalities can design and implement a three-step process.
First, municipalities need to develop an economic profile with an appropriate set of metrics, and then track their historical performance. With this information, a municipality can better understand how its local economy works—its strengths, weaknesses, and hidden potential.
Examples of these metrics include payroll data from local employers; school budgets and per-pupil expenditures; housing starts and trends; municipal revenues; cost of living measures; number of employers by sector; job statistics; population trends; and demographics.
An excellent source of data relating to economic conditions is Framingham State University’s MetroWest Economic Research Center. MassBenchmarks provides information concerning the performance of and prospects for the State’s economy which gives a context for a local and regional economy. It’s published by the UMASS Donahue Institute with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Second, develop an economic portrait of the primary industry and small business clusters. Include nonprofits, and possibilities such as: manufacturing, software, medical devices, financial, education, healthcare, information technology, leisure / hospitality, public sector, construction, legal, retail, professional, and business services.
That portrait will provide a wealth of information and help municipal leaders to answer four questions:
1. Are we too dependent on any particular industry?
2. How might that dependence be a problem or strength for encouraging job growth?
3. What industries should we strive to attract or retain?
4. How do we support locally owned businesses?
Only a diverse business base can help municipalities survive economic storms and capitalize on opportunities during prosperous times.
Within industry clusters, additional metrics can be highlighted, including: number of local employees, top employers, income data, products and services made or provided locally, economic outlook for each sector, contact information for business and nonprofit leaders. Outreach then becomes possible. Southborough schedules meetings monthly with business and nonprofit leaders to learn how the town can help them prosper.
MIT developed a Community Economic Development Tool Box, where one can view profiles of economic indicators by county and compare the profiles to state and national data. The website, mass.gov/lwd/economic-data/, (click on: other resources / municipal data), as well as municipal tax rolls are good sources for identifying your local businesses.
Third: Collect and interpret your municipal financial data and trends. Integrate your economic profile, portrait information, and economic development action plan into the annual municipal budget process. Analysis of this data can be used to determine the best opportunities and to plan next steps for growth and job creation.
Then, explore opportunities to create public-private partnerships to reduce the cost of government, lower residential taxes, and improve the delivery of core services. To succeed, each municipal and state leader must be held accountable for job growth and our economic well-being. In this way, we can ensure our fiscal stability and quality of life.
Christopher Robbins: Economic Development Committee of Southborough,MA; Board of Directors: Corridor Nine Chamber of Commerce, and Past President of the Southborough Business Association.
*Quote from EDT Press Release issued in 2011.