Local/Regional Economic and Community Development

June 13, 2014

What's Your Sign?

By Scott Hutcheson

Assistant Program Leader of Economic and Community Development, Purdue Extension
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.

What's your sign? No, not your astrological sign, the sign, rather, that greets you as you enter your community. Mine says, "Welcome to the Friendly City." Others I've seen celebrated some favorite son or daughter - "Childhood Home of..." Still others note a famed successful season of a sports team, "State Champs 1976."

These signs often signal what residents are proud of. My career has taken me to a great many communities, and many times I've asked groups of locals what makes the place they call home unique? What separates their community from most others? What gives people a reason to come there to live or do business? What keeps people there instead of moving away?

About 80 percent of the time I've received remarkably similar answers, something along the lines of, "It's a great place to raise a family." Even when I inquire about a community's greatest economic development "asset" that's often the answer I get. Mayors and regular folks alike seem convinced that businesses should be lining up to invest in their communities and that people would be hard pressed to find a better place to put down roots. When that's not the case, they are certain it's because they must be their region's "best-kept secret."

There's a bit of a problem when so many communities point to their quality of life as what makes them unique and special. If everyplace is unique and special, then no place is unique and special.

Don't get me wrong; there is much good in having a self-confident community. It leads to all sorts of social benefits. There is also, however, great value in communities understanding their truly unique assets because every community is in competition with many others. Every time businesses take a look at them for its next expansion. When residents consider job offers that would take them away. When soon-to-graduate college students decide whether to move back home or seek their fortunes elsewhere.

When I work with a community, identifying these unique assets is one of our first orders of business. We often start with brainpower, the distinctive skills, abilities and know-how resident in the community. Next we dig to understand the pipeline of new ideas and innovations that brainpower produces - things that are made there and types of new enterprises that get launched. We also consider place-based assets like natural resources and amenities. Last, I ask them to recount the stories that set them apart, the culture, the heritage, even the legends and myths.

Every community - even the smallest ones - has unique assets in all four of these areas: brainpower, innovation and entrepreneurship, quality connected places and stories. Identifying these assets, however, is just the first step. The next one is leveraging and combining them in ways they've never been linked before.

One community did this after recognizing its significant historical asset in the large number of European immigrants who had settled there more than a century earlier. There was architecture, food and culture still resident from that era. Community leaders leveraged that feature by becoming a travel destination, resulting in a new unique brainpower asset: hospitality and tourism. Later, the community capitalized on this new expertise again when recognizing it had an unusual number of illuminated ball fields and set out to become a regional hub for baseball and softball tournaments. This local economy continues to hum along quite nicely.

Communities - large metros, small towns and suburban neighborhoods - need to be in a near constant state of reinvention in order to survive. It sounds awful to say it, but at a minimum, they need to replace the dying with the living just to maintain the status quo. Some, of course, want to grow at a steady rate. The best strategies for survival or growth are built on a community's existing unique assets, the building blocks for what's next.

If you need some help thinking through your community's unique assets and how they could be leveraged, take a look at the work of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University.

So the next time you drive into town and see that sign that welcomes you back home, be thankful that it likely is indeed a good place to raise a family or a friendly city. But many will never get the chance to learn this, as you have, unless you also know your community's unique assets and spread the word.

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