Volume 7, Number 1 – March 2010

Transforming Urban Economies: What Could You Do With $100 Million?

I recently had the pleasure of sitting in on an interesting discussion sponsored by Living Cities (www.livingcities.org), a collaborative of major foundations and financial institutions focused on investing to support healthy and prosperous urban communities.   Held in Detroit, the session brought together some of the nation’s leading experts to address the question of what can be done to change the trajectory of an urban economy.

Our discussions were triggered by a desire to assess lessons learned from two fascinating experiments underway in Cleveland and Detroit.  In Cleveland, the Fund for our Economic Future (http://www.futurefundneo.org) has been investing for many years in a whole series of projects designed to revitalize Northeast Ohio’s economy.  Detroit’s efforts, under the auspices of the New Economy Initiative (http://neweconomyinitiative.cfsem.org), are somewhat newer—having been in place for about 18 months. 

The experiences of these two projects offer a number of enlightening lessons for how to move challenged urban economies in new directions and for how foundations can play a catalytic role in supporting effective economic and workforce development efforts.  A couple of important themes emerged from our discussions earlier this month.

Think Big:  The common practice for many foundations is to provide one-time grants to worthy projects with the assumption that these pilot efforts will then evolve and generate their own outside funds.  This project focus is well-meaning, but has led to too many promising projects that soon fade away after foundation investments end.  In Detroit and Cleveland, investors have instead stressed their engagement over the long haul.  While they are still making project-specific investments, they have committed to supporting programs with significant dollars over an extended period.  

Convene:Many distressed urban economies suffer from a leadership vacuum as elected officials lack credibility, or, in the case of Detroit’s former mayor, have faced criminal prosecution.   To a certain extent, foundations can fill this vacuum by using their “civic power” to convene key stakeholders around the goals of economic transformation.    Foundations cannot do it alone, but they can start critical conversations. 

Connect:In both Cleveland and Detroit, investments focused on building connections across regions, across organizations, and across disciplines.  Seeding networks has emerged as a critical part of this process.  For example, Northeast Ohio’s Jumpstart (www.jumpstartinc.org) has emerged as the region’s pre-eminent entrepreneurship network.   Jumpstart operates its own finance and mentoring programs, but it also operates to connect all of the region’s entrepreneurs to one another and to opportunities and assets that exist elsewhere.

Seed Talent: It’s often said that access to talent is the key success differentiator for companies and for regions.  The places that attract and retain talent are more likely to be competitive in the 21st century economy.   Recognizing this reality, both Cleveland and Detroit are making big investments to grow their local talent pools.  In Detroit, for example, NEI hopes to fund a number of efforts to help improve workforce training in key clusters (e.g. health care, energy).  It has also backed the establishment of a creative economy incubator, focused on arts and design-related entrepreneurs, located in downtown Detroit.

Keep Score:  Both initiatives have placed great emphasis on effective performance measurement, benchmarking, and program evaluation.   Many economic developers pay lip service to research and analysis, recognizing its importance but investing few resources in the effort.  Both Cleveland and Detroit are “walking the walk,” using this research to drive investment decisions and to make the public case for change.  Leaders in both regions believe that their ability to make a compelling case with hard data has been a critical component of their success to date. 

Very few communities are blessed with the large scale philanthropic resources found in Cleveland and Detroit.  Thus, it may be difficult to put together a $100 million fund in many cities.  But, nearly all urban areas do have access to foundation leadership—in the form of community foundations and other philanthropic organization.   Where possible, these resources need to be better connected to the critical mission of opening up economic opportunities for the residents, families, and the entrepreneurs working in urban communities.

What’s New at EntreWorks Consulting?

We’ve been remiss in updating the EntreWorks newsletter and website as a result of a new web design.  We encourage you to visit the new and improved EntreWorks website at www.entreworks.net.   In addition to a new and brighter look and feel, we’ve also introduced the EntreWorks blog (http://blog.entreworks.net).   We expect to continue our quarterly e-newsletter that will allow for a deeper dive into the issues affecting the worlds of economic and workforce development.  Our blog is designed as a supplement, allowing us to provide more regular commentary, to post useful items, and, hopefully, to start conversations about how to transform local economies.  Watch this space in future weeks and months.  And, in the meantime, we welcome your thoughts and ideas.

In addition to a newly designed website, we’ve also added several reports to the EntreWorks library.  They include two reports produced on behalf of the Maine Office of Innovation.  These studies were developed in conjunction with PolicyOne Research and Scruggs & Associates.

Finally, Erik Pages of EntreWorks will be hitting the road for a number of speaking engagements in the coming months.   Look for Erik at the following events and locations:

  • March 22:  Economic Development Administration Regional Meeting, Philadelphia, PA
  • March 25:  Georgia Basic Economic Development Course, Atlanta, GA
  • April 15:  Iowa Association of Regional Councils, Des Moines, IA
  • April 28:  Berks County Economic Summit, Reading, PA
  • May 11:  Pacific Mountain Alliance for Innovation, Olympia, WA