Editorial: Remake economic development strategy for post-pandemic times

Keywords Editorials / Opinion

In the wake of the 2020 pandemic, economists estimate that nearly two-thirds of economic activity in the United States is being generated by “work-from-home” employees. This sharp spike in remote work, combined with a COVID-inspired fear of densely populated places, has Americans fleeing our largest cities for the suburbs.

The Indianapolis region should be one of those suburbs.

Hoosiers don’t think of Indianapolis as a suburb, of course, but with its relatively low cost of living and low population density, it might seem downright suburban to a knowledge worker and potential entrepreneur looking for an escape from the big city. Add to Indy’s advantages the collection of sports, recreation and arts amenities our region has amassed in recent decades, and you have a product ready to take to market.

These selling points—some of which extend to the entire state—aren’t new. But post-COVID America requires a bold, new approach that focuses more on individuals than companies.

The old model is to craft incentives packages to lure manufacturing facilities and corporate headquarters. Indeed, most of our incentives, such as EDGE and Hoosier Business Investment tax credits, are tied to capital investments and how many employees a company would bring here.

Even before the pandemic, there were efforts afoot, such as TechPoint’s partnership with TMap, to identify people with an Indiana connection who work outside the state but might be willing to return. We’ve used this space before to encourage such programs, but now there’s a new urgency to making such appeals, and not just to people who already have local ties.

Fast Company magazine reports that nearly two-thirds of tech workers in the San Francisco Bay area say they would consider relocating. Some of the biggest tech employers—Google, Facebook and Twitter—have said they’ll allow employees to work from anywhere. Why not entice them here with an income tax credit, renter’s credit or other incentives? How can we make it easy for tech workers, writers, consultants or anyone with an entrepreneurial urge to move here?

This isn’t a new concept. Northwest Alabama; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Topeka, Kansas; and the entire state of Vermont were among those targeting individuals with cash payments and tax credits before anyone had even heard of COVID-19. We should get aggressive before this becomes standard practice.

Economic development officials here should move immediately to create the financial incentives needed to stand out among the crowd and catch the attention of knowledge workers across the country. Our region is well-positioned to take advantage of the trend, provided there is a concerted effort to reverse some of the setbacks downtown has suffered. We’ll need all the amenities we had before the pandemic—and more—to win this battle for talent.

Those who can do their jobs remotely tend to be better educated and more highly paid than the broader workforce. They have the means to create companies and employ others, and they can live anywhere in the world. There might never be a better time to pursue them. Let’s get to work.•

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