Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's Time for Open Source Economic Development

There are few things as repetitive as watching economic development presentations from different cities, counties, and states. Everyone's got an educated workforce, everyone's got a top ranked symphony, everyone's got a website with pictures of lab coat techs starting at test tubes. And just about everyone still has high unemployment.

The me-too wastefulness of the economic development industry is best seen in the billions poured into convention centers over the last decade. For some reason, sports stadiums make a lot of academics angry, but convention centers can actually be far more wasteful. Here in DC, there was all kinds of moaning about the $611 million stadium the city built for the Nationals, which is generating more than enough revenue to cover its debt service. But there was barely a peep over the me-too $800 million convention center that the city is struggling to fill.

But instead of wasting taxpayer dollars on copycat slogans and convention centers, it's time for economic development to draw on taxpayers' unique knowledge of their hometowns. Residents are already altering perceptions of cities and states with YouTube clips, from the Arlington Rap to the Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video to Minnesota Gurls, all of which get far more hits than any of the vapid symphony, science, and art videos put up by economic development authorities.

Rather than get surprised by some 18 year old's YouTube clip, it makes more sense for recruitment campaigns to incorporate more input from residents. Some cities will hold charettes and go through all kinds of planning debates over a 10 acre parcel of land. But economic development strategies are more important to these cities' futures than the position of the parking garage next to the new "lifestyle center". Moreover, many people developing those strategies are cautious government employees who do not want to venture too far away from conventional themes with predictably mediocre results. So why not involve citizens more?

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