GUEVARA & KETZENBERGER: Boost economic development from within

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint

viewpoint-guevara-ketzenberger-2up.jpgIf the competition for a second Amazon headquarters tells us anything, it is that the era of transactional economic development is past. Making deals for jobs through incentive packages isn’t what defines successful economic development; building upon the assets and human talent that exists in a community does.

Economic development requires strategic investments in people, networks and non-traditional collaborations to bring about great innovation, entrepreneurship and sustained, competitive growth. We heard this loud and clear during the recent symposium to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Indiana University Public Policy Institute. The PPI’s groundbreaking “Thriving Communities, Thriving State” report was the basis for a day of sessions to turn ideas into action. The report can be found at An “Ideas to Action” section from the symposium will be posted soon.

The session on entrepreneurship was particularly fruitful. It provided several examples of new-wave economic development and demonstrated that local leaders are getting it. For example, Launch Fishers, where representatives from more than 50 cities have visited to learn how the co-working space has grown from 16,000 square feet in the city’s library to 52,000 square feet in an office building in just five years.

Mayor Scott Fadness tells those visitors how he and his friend, serial entrepreneur John Wechsler, saw a need for inexpensive and accessible co-working space. Their source: friends and neighbors tired of working in coffee shops. With the need established, Fishers created a co-working space in the basement of City Hall to meet it. Nothing fancy. Meeting rooms, desks, mail service, copy machines and a small coffee shop.

People flocked to it and, before long, small businesses were migrating into nearby office buildings. The reputation grew, hence the long line of visitors hoping to replicate Fishers’ success. But simply trying to copy what someone else is doing is a poor strategy, Fadness told attendees at the recent PPI symposium. No two communities are alike.

Success is more likely in communities that adapt, not replicate. There are no shortcuts. Successful communities do look at other successful communities, but they take those lessons learned and customize them to unique assets, resources and the culture of their own community. This is true place-based development.

It is important to remember not all ideas succeed. Indy Chamber President and CEO Michael Huber emphasized that trial and error is an important part of developing a robust economy. Supporting a lot of ideas, even ones that might fail, is important to learning what works.

Starting small is important, too. Fadness said it is easier to experiment and fail fast if an idea’s going to fail. That’s an entrepreneurial mind-set that’s needed to grow innovative businesses. Leaders need to take risk, embrace the lessons learned from failure, and use those lessons to move the community forward. If you want to know why failure doesn’t have to be an ending, but a starting point for success, make plans now to attend Launch Fishers’ 2018 Fail Fest next August.

Competitive, thriving communities know their strengths, thanks to good data. They develop strategies tailored toward increasing the value of what their community or region produces. They do it through strong networks of diverse partners that link people together and they don’t take shortcuts by trying to copy something else or by focusing only on incentives.•


Guevara is director of Indiana University’s Public Policy Institute. You may reach him at [email protected] Ketzenberger has covered business and politics for several Indiana newspapers. He is a regular panelist on the statewide public television show “Indiana Week in Review.”

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