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REGIONAL ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Foggy Forecast: A Practitioner’s POV
Working with sustainable community and economic development in northern New Mexico, I notice interwoven environmental, economic and community issues impacting the built and natural environments in ways that will require changes and long-term investments in public policy, land use and resource management. It will be equally important to work collaboratively, instead of in the usual relentless, competitive manner.
On the surface, the regional issues reflect the macro challenges with stagnant employment and wages, decreasing access to financing, struggling housing recovery and increasing stress on local governments to sustain public services with decreasing state and federal support. While recent news informed us about indications of “recovery,” the lives of most average people have not improved. New predicaments such as the volatile decline in crude oil prices—a double-edged sword impacting state tax revenue while reducing energy costs for producers and consumers—on the macro level will affect conditions locally. The world stage is impacting local regions at an accelerated pace.
On a deeper level, key concerns are rooted in the following issues:
The conventional economic base approach—maximizing financial profits and being dependent mostly on external resources—has not resulted in stability, as much regional economic equity continues to leak outside, leaving inadequate resources for local sustainability. This approach lacks integrated solutions that actively involve ongoing collaborations with the natural and built environments and the inherent values of local cultural capital. Northern New Mexico is excessively reliant on only a few sectors—government, education, health and hospitality—to generate primary economic opportunities. Balancing the economic base with local community-based development will be critical.
The foundation of the region’s infrastructure—civil, social and financial—is deteriorating, outdated and ill-equipped to meet current demands and sustain growth that can maintain healthy environments. Basic economic, environmental and community equities are gradually and chronically depleting. This issue is perhaps the most daunting due to its scope.
Compounding the problem is the approach and lack of coordination deployed in dealing with these issues. Infrastructure investments in the region have been piece-mealed and mostly lack integration and appropriate sequencing. As a result, resources are scarce for capital improvements, as well as ongoing operations and maintenance. The region is notably deficient in telecommunication, water and energy infrastructures critical for regional sustainability, including the effects on already vulnerable food security.
Climate change challenges—increasing droughts, fires and floods—further complicate conditions as environmental costs are becoming more expensive to address. The region not long ago experienced a series of record fires—the worst in New Mexico history—including the Las Conchas, which burned more than 156,000 acres. The full impact is still undetermined. Concurrently, severe drought conditions plaguing the area affect soil conditions, food production and other long-term ecological concerns.
Social inequality is often based on economics. The region’s poverty rate has climbed, with over 30 percent of children living under the poverty level. This parallels the fact that we are the worst state in the nation for child hunger. Recognizing that each of our communities may be different requires solutions that reflect diverse environmental, social and cultural issues. Imperative to achieving a sustainable local economy, the region increasingly has to focus on and adapt to macroeconomic changes while balancing its regenerative capacities to better address and mitigate issues such as food insecurity, adequate affordable housing, youth opportunities and risk of loss to local culture.
OK, so what are we to do?
It is one thing to try to figure out what went right or wrong; it’s another to adopt actions and invest in support of establishing economic and community resiliency. Given that I am unable to predict the future or in any manner affect it, all I can suggest here is a navigation tool set partly based on recommendations from NADO (National Association of Development Organizations) that may be useful in maintaining a level of poise in a “foggy” environment.
First, we should address the question “Where are we now?” by using the relevant data and background information to help identify the critical internal and external factors that speak to the region’s unique assets and competitive positioning. This is the basic SWOT (strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats) analysis.
Second, we should answer the questions “Where do we want to go?” and “How are we going to get there?” by leveraging this analysis. The strategy and action plan should logically flow from the critical internal and external factors that speak to the region’s assets and limitations and its role in capacity-building. The strategy should evolve from a clearly defined vision with prioritized goals and measurable objectives.
Third, the question “What do we need to do to get there?” is based primarily on the prioritized goals and objectives. A successful action plan should then focus on those regionally driven strategic priorities that will be undertaken to bring the prosperity aspirations of the region’s stakeholders to fruition.
Fourth, we should ask, “How are we doing?” and “What can we do better?” These form the evaluation framework, with its associated measures and timelines and should cascade from the strategy and action plan, which, in turn, flow from the SWOT analysis. Performance measures are key to demonstrate accountability and, in some way, force us to be honest about our progress.
Finally, keep “resiliency” in mind. In this way, the objective is to build equity—economic social and environmental—for the region through appropriate investments, risk management and value propositions.
Economic resilience can be realized using examples such as these:
• Efforts to broaden the industrial base with diversification initiatives such as targeting the development of emerging clusters or industries that (a) build on the region’s unique assets and competitive strengths, and (b) provide stability during downturns that disproportionately impact any single cluster or industry;
• Enhancement of business retention and expansion programs;
• Promotion of business continuity and preparedness;
• Employment of safe development practices in business districts and surrounding communities such as locating structures outside of flood plains, preserving natural lands that act as buffers from storms, and protecting downtowns and other existing development from the impacts of extreme weather; and
• Comprehensive planning efforts that involve extensive engagement from the community to define and implement a collective vision for resilience.
Conclusion and Continuum
Prior to the Comics Code Authority (late 1954) coming into existence, a recognized psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham dealt with the mental examination of convicted felons. As he examined the younger felons, he soon found out that they most fancied reading comic books. Wertham then started to study comics and concluded that they were violent, filled with sex and drugs, and basically a danger for the mental stability of America’s youth. In 1954, he published Seduction of the Innocent, condemning comic books and superheroes. The book received the attention of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Senate hearings on the damaging influence of comics on America’s youth were held and gained much media attention.
Wertham alleged that Batman and Robin were actually gay partners and promoted homosexuality. Wonder Woman also came under attack; her strength and independence made her a lesbian and thus not a positive role model for young girls. World’s Finest Comic issue #74 was the last comic before the adoption of the Comic Code, which prohibited, among other things, the presentation of “policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions…in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” But it added the requirements that “in every instance good shall triumph over evil” and discouraged “instances of law-enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal’s activities.”
So, why is this bit of “Americana” history important for regional economic development? First, even Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, with all their good intentions and superpowers, couldn’t save the nation and its people from distorted values and partial world views promoted by a few seeking to gain control and influence. The point here is that misguided policies and actions can lead to costly and damaging unintended consequences. If we are to truly participate in shaping a viable long-term community, we should take responsibility for the long haul to understand the issues and not defer to the few who may want to promote agendas for self-serving purposes.
In conclusion, the notion of good triumphing over evil is somewhat self-defined and self-inflected to fit into a desired outcome of winners and losers. Breaking out of the impulse of “us” versus “them” is imperative for the well-being of our world. In doing so, perhaps we can reconsider how we collaborate and share the limited resources that sustain us. This is no easy journey to sustainable economic development, and many of us are perplexed by the myriad of challenges. It will take many trials and errors and commitment together for the long term. As being on a road with foggy conditions, it just makes sense to be slow and steady.
Duncan Sill works on community and economic-development issues in New Mexico and is involved with national and global activities related to addressing hunger, water sustainability and climate change. Sill is the Economic and Strategic Development director for the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District. He is also actively engaged in film production. His recent works include Drunktown’s Finest (Official Sundance Selection 2014, Robert Redford, executive producer) and Somebody Next Door (short documentary on New Mexico hunger). Sill can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @InvictusDuncan
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