An Oct. 8 Washington Post editorial said that Fairfax County “remains the economic wunderkind of Virginia and in many ways of the Washington area” and said the county “is poised for further growth and prosperity.”
For more than 30 years, county officials consistently have supported an economic development plan that got the county to this point. We cannot rest on our past successes, because we know full well that communities with less vibrant economies face the loss of companies, jobs, revenue and quality of life.
For a book I recently wrote, I interviewed more than 70 mayors, economic development officials, chamber of commerce leaders and university presidents from around the nation to come up with lessons on how to reinvent local and regional economies in the wake of long-term economic decline and more recent global economic trends. Drawing on that research and my experience in Fairfax County, I extracted several conclusions that can be applied to communities generally:
●Communities cannot allow themselves to become complacent. Economic stability can be lost. A longtime colleague is fond of saying that “there is no divine right to prosperity.” The proof behind that statement could have been found in 1960s Pittsburgh, 1970s Seattle or 1980s Houston. In their recoveries, each emphasized economic diversity and quality-of-life amenities to support their comebacks, each incorporated economic development planning into their larger comprehensive planning, and each found the necessary leadership to light the right paths.
●Local governments — in both conscious and subconscious ways — influence the course of local economic growth. Effective local political leadership in the future will foresee the economic needs of the community, plan its responses to environmental factors — both opportunities and threats — and marshal the necessary resources to achieve the best future with the greatest benefits from economic growth with minimal unintended consequences.
●Change, as it affects local economic growth, must be anticipated, but local expectations must be managed. Strategic planning can enable communities to foresee future needs and opportunities and can outline the path to pursue to achieve the communities’ vision. Economic development programs should be seen as investments, not costs. And, in especially difficult economic times, these efforts should be increased, not reduced.
Communities must prepare for businesses as if dressing up for the big dance. Many communities may, in any given situation, be courting the same business growth. One’s appearance can make it a more attractive suitor. That attractiveness must consist of business-related factors, quality-of-life features and a general openness in the community to people of all races, origins and backgrounds.
Local economic growth can be achieved. Financially troubled communities can turn around their decline with preparation, diversification and long-term investments in the development of the local economic base.
Addressing economic concerns before they become issues to be resolved sends a strong message to the business community — present and prospective — that this is a community that is pro-business and knows how to address its collective needs. Fairfax County is poised for further growth and prosperity, and with planning, other localities around the country can be as well.
Gerald L. Gordon is president and chief executive of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority and the author of “Reinventing Local and Regional Economies” and “The Formula for Economic Growth on Main Street America.”