The Columbian-Progress followed a recent article about population decline in Marion County with a reader poll asking opinions on how to best reverse that decline.
Readers were given only the following answers from which to choose and their answers broke down in the following percentages:
1. “Aggressively recruit new industry” – 39 percent
2. “Continue to invest in having a good education system”- 15 percent
3. “Make improvements to the community to increase the quality of life” – 26 percent
4. “Other” – 20 percent
As an economic development professional, whose daily motivation is driven by just these sorts of questions, I’d like to share several thoughts about the results of this poll, as well as why the population decline in the county is an important indicator of the economic health of the county, but it is not the ONLY indicator.
First, population growth is certainly a key measure of an area’s economic vitality. People are attracted to places where the economy is robust and where there is a good quality of life and therefore, one would expect a population increase if an economy is thriving. However, it is important that just one piece of statistical data doesn’t shape our entire view of the economic health of a location.
For example, when examining Marion County’s economic health, citizens of Marion County experienced the largest percentage increase in average income of any county in the state from 2016 to 2017 (an increase of 8.6 percent). That means that on average, hard-working Marion County citizens are bringing home more money from their jobs than they were in previous years, making it easier to afford the things they need and/or want.
We should also look at current unemployment figures about which there was a story in the same edition of the paper as the population story. March 2019 unemployment figures show our county near full employment with only 5 percent unemployed. That number translates into 638 more people employed in Marion County today than were employed in March of 2010 at a time when unemployment was at around 12 percent.
Both the decrease in population and the increase in number employed affect the unemployment percentage, but these two bits of data, that more people are working and that they are making more money, provide some support for seeing the beginning of an upturn in our economic situation.
When we connect this additional information to the population numbers, we don’t discount that we have challenges with declining population, but we also have some indication that our economy has been making some progress; that an expectation for improved prosperity, even to a turning of the population decline trend, is not an unreasonable outlook.
Progress is perhaps further evidenced in the steady increase in Columbia’s sales tax over the previous year’s figures for several months now. While these receipts have not reached levels of previous years (prior to the 2008 Great Recession), an upturn is certainly more encouraging than continued slipping of the receipts.
I would also contend that the agreement by the city voters to impose the 3 percent tax on restaurants and hotels for specific use to promote tourism, parks and recreation is evidence that local citizens are moving to take proactive steps to build the future of our community.
There are also success stories when we look at our schools, with both Marion County and Columbia School Districts improving graduation rates and Columbia High School being named the 13th best school in the state in recent days by U.S. News and World Report.
In addition, there are new initiatives focusing on early childhood learning that will translate into better results for our incoming students. The Early Learning Collaborative initiative, the Excel by 5 program and the Save the Children initiative are all cooperative efforts across school districts and private daycare/kindergartens to help more students be ready to learn when they reach school age.
Now, concerning the answers to the poll question. While each of these answers in itself is a reasonable response to helping reverse the population decline, not one of them can truly be defined as “the best.” Perhaps one could assert that “making improvements to the community to improve quality of life,” encompasses each of the other two. Still, we must recognize that they are each dependent upon the other for a complete effort to move our community toward more economic prosperity. Efforts to accomplish one, without simultaneous efforts focused on the others, will not bring ultimate success.
Before closing, I’d like to dive into the phrase “aggressively recruit new industry,” which was chosen as the best answer to the population decline by the largest percentage of responders.
Recruiting industry is like marketing a product. A successful company continues to work to improve its product even as it is marketing it and it allocates specific resources to that marketing effort. Compare the number of upgraded versions of the iPhone and iPad released by Apple to a similar challenge facing a community. The community must continue to improve its infrastructure, its available buildings and sites, its education system, its workforce, and its quality of life in order to be competitive with all the other communities vying for industry investment.
And here we are, talking about quality of life and workforce as part of the attraction in the recruiting process. They are integrally interwoven. In fact, Site Selection magazine found “skilled workforce availability” to be the number one attraction criterion for CEOs searching for locations (poll results- Spring 2019 edition). This means we must work for the elements of a quality of life in our community that will attract people in order to attract industry. Not the other way around. This is a recognized trend in economic development practices. Thirty years ago and earlier, people would follow industry, moving to new locations where job openings were plentiful. Today, industry follows people to places where they can find a talented available workforce, which is attracted to those places by the quality of life offered.
Ultimately the work to attract new industry is much more than just aggressive recruitment. We have to continually improve our product (our community, its workforce, available sites, etc.) and to commit the resources to the marketing efforts.
To tie all this together, I’ll put a little spin on a quote from Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc. consultants.
“When it comes to economic development, no single strategy works in every scenario. But there is much we can do to improve the systems and structures supporting jobs and the economy. We can create destinations people want to live in, work in and socialize in. Attract people with well-designed parks, trails and streets. Keep a close eye on our workforce. Manage the land wisely. Cultivate small businesses. Be disciplined about our investments.”
And, we can work with one another as a team, not each within our own silos, to leverage opportunities and resources for shaping our community into a place that nurtures business growth and the health and happiness of its citizens.
While we clearly are not experiencing what could be characterized as an economic boom yet, I believe good days are ahead for Columbia and Marion County – that building on the areas where we are seeing successes, with cooperation, diligence and commitment, the aggregate of the steps we are taking now will move us toward the economic prosperity for our community that is our goal.
Lori Watts is president of the Marion County Development Partnership, which serves as the community’s industrial recruiter and chamber of commerce. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.