Local/Regional Economic and Community Development

March 12, 2015

Keep Your Eye on New Jersey

 By Scott Hutcheson

Assistant Program Leader for Community Development, Purdue Extension and Senior Associate, Purdue Center for Regional Development

Scott Hutcheson works with local and regional communities across the U.S. and abroad, helping civic leaders implement strategies to grow their local economies and ensure quality of life for residents.

Many communities play their own version of "keeping up with the Joneses," with a watchful eye on other cities and towns to see how they compare. Sometimes it's a formal process of benchmarking, tracking demographics and economic statistics to see how they stack up. In other instances, its simply envy when the community next door gets a shiny new plaything and your hometown doesn't.

In both cases, being aware of what's going on somewhere else can be helpful, as can learning from others' successes and failures. During the last few weeks I've been several places that may not be capturing the public's attention right now, but you might want to keep an eye on them.

First is New Jersey. I'm not suggesting you watch New Jersey to see what elected officials Gov. Chris Christie or Sen. Cory Booker are doing or even to keep tabs on the cast of The Jersey Shore, but, rather, what is happening at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark. Leaders of the New Jersey Innovation Institute are launching a new initiative called MarketShift that represents a new way of thinking about growing the economy and improving the quality of life for those who live in the Garden State.

A subtle but fundamental shift is occurring. First, the folks in New Jersey are focusing on what they have, not on what they don't have. It's tempting in any community, urban or rural, to spend so much of your time fretting over what you don't have, and it is easy to ignore what you do have. Your existing assets are your very best building blocks for what's next.

What the folks in Newark do have - and what they are focusing on - are some amazing educational assets, all concentrated within a few city blocks. Near NJIT you can also find Rutgers University, Essex County Community College and a magnet high school focusing on science, technology, engineering and math. This area is an epicenter for brainpower and 21st century talent.

MarketShift uses this brainpower to begin working closely with existing New Jersey businesses, rather than worrying too much about attracting new industry to the community - another example of focusing on what they have rather than what they don't. They are helping these existing companies accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship, launching their next product or finding a new market for an existing product.

They are also working on making the NJIT campus a place where business people can connect with one another and with the resources available in these educational institutions. They are also beginning to create a completely new narrative about the exciting things going on there.

My travels over the last few weeks also took me to places very different than Newark. In Valdez, Alaska, and rural Kansas I saw elements of the very same things that are going on in New Jersey - focusing on brainpower and 21st Century talent, and innovation and entrepreneurship networks; creating quality connected places; and designing new narratives.

Valdez, Alaska, doesn't have a big university, but the brainpower they do have is embedded in generations of commercial fishing and decades worth of expertise in the oil industry. This is the brainpower they are leveraging.

This is the shift that is occurring in the strategies communities and regions are adopting to grow their economies or at least stabilize the decline. I'm hearing less and less about attracting that next big employer or getting the multimillion-dollar grant from some federal or state agency.

What I am hearing from people - in places like New Jersey, Alaska and Kansas - is a growing recognition that nobody is going to swoop in and save them, but that they have sets of assets that are truly unique on this planet. And through this recognition they have the power to link and leverage those assets and create new opportunities.

So, want to learn from some pretty exciting communities? Keep an eye on places like Alaska, and Kansas, and yes, New Jersey. You just might pick up a thing or two.


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