Authored by David Eisenlohr and Jolena Presti

In today’s complex economic landscape, restoring the momentum of economic expansion and investment is at the forefront of every public official’s concerns. Whether attracting growth to maximize opportunity built around community strengths or accounting for the many unknowns caused by major disruptions, a robust economic development strategy is essential to the recovery of virtually every city, county, regional government and development organization in the United States.

An integrated planning process that incorporates custom research and analysis, stakeholder engagement, deep market understanding and sector-specific insights can position public organizations for accelerated recovery and sustained growth. The result is an economic development strategic plan that lays the foundation to help communities direct efforts and resources toward a clearly defined vision for the future.

Economic development planning framework

Economic development strategic planning is critical to shaping a vibrant and economically competitive environment for the future of a community or region. Often, effective strategy development is as much about understanding what the organization will not do as what it will do. Accordingly, the best economic development plans focus on leveraging assets and strengths rather than overcoming challenges, and are characterized by a sharp focus on the community’s unique economic role, key clusters of opportunity, workforce characteristics, quality of life and other economic and demographic differentiators.

The steps involved in a strategic economic development planning process follow a structured sequence of phases and tasks:

  • Define – This phase involves project start-up activities including creating an overall governance structure, assembling the planning team, gathering relevant data, identifying key stakeholders and developing a plan for their involvement.
  • Discover – This is the primary data collection phase of the planning effort, and the most resource-intensive. It includes extensive market research, multimodal stakeholder engagement and baseline assessments to establish the factual foundation for subsequent steps in the planning process.
  • Develop – Encompassed in this phase are the tasks needed to create, review, approve and adopt a written economic development plan. Key outcomes include the articulation of a shared community vision, identification of competitive differentiators, development and prioritization of economic development goals and objectives and the preparation of a road map for implementation.
  • Deploy In this phase, accountable leaders and strategy execution “champions” are identified, detailed operational plans are developed, progress is measured and fine tuning is ongoing based on results achieved and lessons learned.

Outcomes of the strategic economic development planning process should include:

  • Comprehensive understanding of place-based assets and location advantages
  • Identification and awareness of key economic assets and emerging economic opportunities based on existing assets and global trends
  • Economic vision development, consensus and awareness
  • Identification of catalytic strategies, goals and objectives to generate momentum for emerging economic opportunities
  • Assessment of opportunities for the strategic use of public financial incentives to maximize community objectives
  • An implementation road map and structure to set the stage for stakeholder advancement of the economic vision

Why create an economic development strategic plan now?

In the wake of COVID-19, every community will be faced with the daunting challenge of rebuilding their local economies. Significant advantages can accrue to those organizations that move aggressively to refine, replace or redesign their economic development strategy. Important principles to incorporate into the planning process include:

  • Speed to market – Places that move quickly to assess the situation, respond to changing conditions and define new strategies will have a competitive advantage
  • Global thinking – At a time of rapid change, it is essential that communities and regions assess not only local and regional assets, opportunities and challenges but examine them through the lens of global change. Global influences have local consequences, bringing not only new challenges to traditional markets, but also opening new markets and business opportunities
  • Inclusion and engagement – Throughout the strategic planning process, the active participation and involvement of stakeholders across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors is essential to sustainable success. Diverse interests must be afforded meaningful opportunities to align resources and focus economic development efforts toward achievement of the community’s shared economic vision
  • Leverage assets and strengths – Building on the best of what is already in place, defining the unique economic position and role of a community and linking to innovation are all fundamental to building a strong economic future
  • Robust implementation planning – A well-conceived deployment road map is critical to advancing economic growth overall. When planning for recovery, communities need to focus on pragmatic economic development strategies considering a new post-COVID-19 reality, as well as long-term resiliency planning

Baker Tilly can help

Baker Tilly Municipal Advisors provide a broad range economic development consulting services to municipal governments, regional authorities and economic development organization, serving more than 1,000 public sector entities across the United States.

For more information on this topic, or to connect with a public sector economic development specialist, contact our team.

Government building with waving flag
Next up

COVID-19 Stimulus Guide: federal, state and local financial assistance programs