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Best in Class

Earlier this year, Forbes reported its ranking of the best places for business and careers. While the report did not go into great detail, for me it raised questions regarding how cities and counties can transform themselves into places like those mentioned.

In Who’s Your City, Richard Florida cites several characteristics that tend to attract the best and brightest people, along with their inclination to innovate, start businesses (and spend money on various ventures), and participate in community activities. It would appear that the cities listed by Forbes might have many of the characteristics listed by Florida – a welcoming community atmosphere, reasonable living costs, an acceptance of new concepts and perspectives, tax incentives, sensible real estate prices, good schools, local colleges and universities, good transportation, and a mix of creative, artistic and innovative organizations. Certainly, it is helpful if the locale is in a beautiful setting, but some of the cities listed by Forbes might not be on the list of the most beautiful places in America. The top ten were:

  1. Raleigh, NC
  2. Fort Collins, CO
  3. Durham, NC
  4. Fayetteville, AR
  5. Lincoln, NE
  6. Asheville, NC
  7. Des Moines, IA
  8. Austin, TX
  9. Boise, ID
  10. Colorado Springs, CO

As local communities struggle to balance budgets and seek creative means of growing their economies, it seems wise to assess what attributes these cities have that make them so magnetic. Each has its own idiosyncrasies but there appear to be inherent common themes. Cities that are mobilizing to broaden their economic platforms would do well to determine what magic the listed cities possess.

Bright, innovative people who are prone to taking risks prefer to do so where that risk can be moderated. North Carolina boasts four metro areas with the lowest business costs. But it is more than cost of doing business or living that attracts commerce. People who work hard want to live where they can have a ‘life,’ which means short commutes, a vibrant downtown, a collaborative community spirit, parks, good schools and plenty of recreational options. Anyone who has lived with long commutes, high costs, and a feeling of disconnection are delighted with Boise, Lincoln, Colorado Springs, and Austin.  Mostly, it is the feeling one gets when visiting and working in these communities. The cities are well managed and the people are warm and gracious. In Florida’s words, they are nice “places to be.”

As economic struggles continue and a broad re-centering occurs, cities and counties must break old patterns. They must boldly transform into communities with attributes that people want and are attracted to. Many are now seeking new locales that re-center their families much like our grandparents and great grandparents did when leaving Europe or the eastern U.S. 80 or 100 years ago. What are they seeking? What can your community provide?

If Boise had a rainy, stormy climate, would the development of a new public transit system make it more attractive? No. Lincoln’s StarTran public transportation system is well managed, practical and very community oriented. If it had three times as many routes would it make Lincoln a better place to live and grow a business? No. For both cities, it is the mix of attributes that make them attractive. I continue to encourage economic development professionals to shed old thought patterns and embrace broader perspectives when formulating community development programs. Understand the mix of ‘attractors’ and assess what is already available and others that can easily be developed. Many take little new money but require budget reallocation and THAT can become a challenge. Remember, for decision makers, the central questions always come down to, “What future do you prefer?” and “What constitutes the kind of community people want and businesses need?”

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.  www.futurescorp.com  (public futures)

Numbers Please

During a program presented at a corporate planning conference last week, I again stressed the value of first seeking a variety of data, then engaging in collaborative analysis to determine meaning and potential impact. Data by itself is merely information. We place values on it and determine its positive or negative impact on enterprise, program, or community. Like most aspects of strategic thinking and planning, the process is typically more valuable than the product. Merely getting together to review data, establish parameters, and calculate probability will pay enormous dividends. Unfortunately, far too many public leaders and government agencies neglect this intrinsic management activity.

 Let’s talk numbers. I encourage state and local leaders is to seek the best possible sources to gather data that is central to an issue. Once gathered, convene subject matter experts who focus on the community, believe in the common interest, and have the capacity to collaboratively develop remediation strategies. Below are just a few examples of numbers (there are thousands of data reports that can be used to generate thoughtful conversation). For these I offer neither analysis nor interpretation. Many don’t need much thought…they need action.

 Today, during the Meet the Press panel (Ed Gillespie, Rachel Maddow, E.J. Dionne, David Brooks) it was noted by New York Times columnist David Brooks that the federal government has had “tax revenues for the past decade of 18 percent of GDP.  That’s just the level.  We’ve had spending of about 20 percent.  After all we’ve been through in the past year and after healthcare reform, it’s going to go up to 25 percent.  We’ll just have this gigantic gap between 25 spending, 18 revenue.” Now, IF that is true and those numbers are accurate, what does this mean to future funding for state and local programs?

 Each year there are 79 million more people who need to be fed worldwide and approximately 3 billion people on the planet are consuming more grain-intensive livestock products. This is happening at a time when world grain consumption has grown from approximately 20 million tons annually to over 40 million tons and ethanol production has escalated – creating competition between fuel and food for growing populations. What happens when food AND oil prices soar and availability declines?

 Compounding the above, data from the Earth Policy Institute reveals that China and India are the world’s two largest wheat producers (the U.S. is number 3) and also dominate world rice production (Viet Nam is the number two rice exporter). Glacier melt is the principal water source for rivers in both China and India and both the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau are losing their glaciers at an astounding rate. Viet Nam is facing epic flooding due to rising oceans whereby only a 3 foot rise in sea level would destroy half the rice fields in the Mekong Delta and over half the rice fields in Bangladesh. What will this mean to global and local food availability and prices? And certainly, to the health and well-being of a billion people?

Since 1981, oil extraction has exceeded by a significant margin the number of new oil fields discovered. The latest 2008 figures indicate that the world used nearly 31 billion barrels of oil but discovered new deposits equating to only around 7 billion barrels. As noted in a recent Blog, Christopher Steiner’s new book, ($20 per Gallon, How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better), provides fairly stark but enlightening data on why gasoline prices will rise and the potential impact on American society.

 In 2008, around 7.9 billion tons of carbon were emitted from burning fossil fuels and another 1.5 billion tons were emitted through deforestation – a total of 9.4 billion tons. Since the global ecosystem can only absorb around 5 billion tons into the oceans, soil, and various forms of vegetation, the rest stays in the atmosphere and escalates CO2 levels. An untold amount of CO2 is being released from melting permafrost (Arctic and close to 9 million square miles of northern latitude soil contains more CO2 than is currently in the atmosphere), pointing to the phenomenon of ‘dynamic acceleration’ as the planet heats and frozen latitudes begin to release both methane and CO2 faster.

 We have evolved into an urban species. In 1900, only 150 million people lived in cities; a hundred years later, 2.8 billion people live in cities – over half of the global population. 2.5 billion people lack improved sanitation facilities; the EPA estimates that 680 billion gallons of potable water is lost per year  through leaky municipal water systems; half of all water in American homes is used for showers and flushing. Costs for water extraction, transport and treatment make water a critical element of every community plan. Certainly, water availability is central to economic development, health and overall quality of life.

 Much of the above is derived from the Earth Policy Institute – a non-profit organization formed to provide data and encouragement for changing the planet. Richard Florida (Who’s Your City) and Richard Register (Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature) have written extensively about the need to transform how we evaluate, plan and develop new communities. The ‘pleasure-pain’ principle is active in this Country…we resist change until the suffering is too great. Unfortunately, with the pace of change today, if we continue this course, it will be too late. Good data will inform decisions. I have found that an insufficient number of elected and appointed officials, no matter how dedicated and well intentioned, gather enough data to be 1) properly informed, 2) able to inform their communities, and 3) able to use data to drive critical political and program decisions. The admonition “Confront Reality” is appropriate. A lot is happening locally, regionally and globally. Know the numbers, discuss the potential impact and calculate probability. Then create AND implement plans to transform your communities. Those who do so will be Prepared for Challenge and will be the celebrated leaders of tomorrow.

 NOTE: Look for other relevant data in Plan B 4.0, Mobilizing to Save Civilization, by Lester R. Brown, the Earth Policy Institute

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.