Charting a New Course to Community Prosperity

Holistic Economic Development

Communities face many significant challenges in sustaining and growing their economies. One challenge is the inability to retain good workers, which serves as a barrier to business recruitment and the growth of existing business. It can rob a region of its innovative minds and future leadership. In rural areas particularly, workforce declines in certain population age groups and a lack of participation across the workforce population have become common nationwide.

To grow a community’s ability to compete and to build opportunities to keep and attract talent, it is imperative that organizations change the way that economic development has been approached over past years and embrace a new, more holistic, integrated approach to growing the economy in their community or region. No longer can communities sustain themselves and provide meaningful opportunities to their current and aspirational workforce simply through recruitment and retention strategies. Today a more comprehensive, integrated approach is necessary, particularly in rural communities, to look at ALL means of building a strong economy that supports a vibrant, diverse workforce.

As the Brookings Institute, in its recent article Remaking Economic Development stated, “The proliferation of low-wage, part-time employment, declining labor force participation rates, and the erosion of incomes and stagnation in wages require more intensive, nimble, and creative responses from a wide range of institutions than current systems allow.”

In addition, the prevailing “Field of Dreams” philosophy of “build it and they’ll come” is simply no longer enough to win competitive projects. With the proliferation of certified/qualified sites, what was once a key differentiator, today has become for many competitive projects an entry-level standard to make the first cut. In today’s marketplace, the greatest competitive edge is the ability to demonstrate the region’s workforce in conjunction with its other product as a total, specialized package. Each community should think of product more broadly, connecting the specific abilities and capacity of its workforce to each physical product it promotes.

Communities must move from the traditional view of economic development in terms of: product + incentives + marketing = business recruitment.

With the objective of regional prosperity to guide their efforts, communities/regions should expand their scope beyond traditional recruitment strategies to include such activities as supporting business formation, building leadership capacity, and digging deeper into the factors impacting the workforce to find ways to address situations exacerbating out-migration and the low workforce participation rates.

At VisionFirst, we recommend as a starting point that communities consider the following areas of focus when seeking to build a more holistic approach to creating community prosperity:

Workforce & Education

  • Change perception of workforce to be considered a critical, competitive part of product
  • Recapture non-participating labor force when possible
  • Train to the skills needed – Innovate in education with coding and entrepreneurialism

Product & Marketing

  • Change the community’s narrative to represent the full picture – commit to telling your community’s story
  • Identify sources of funding to continually improve product
  • Develop, maintain and promote an up-to-date product inventory/list

Community Development

  • Consider internet availability as basic infrastructure for business, education
  • Support initiatives to encourage the availability of sufficient workforce housing
  • Understand and address community needs such as affordable childcare that prevent parts of the labor force from working
  • Consider the role that non-profits and faith-based organizations can play in addressing such needs


  • Include technical proficiency, such as coding, as a part of today and tomorrow’s definition of literacy
  • Launch business formation programs that support sector strengths and innovation
  • Research best practices of other communities with similar strengths for possible implementation
  • Look at competitive edge provided by specially trained workforce: i.e., veterans and military separates; researchers or engineers; a creative cluster of designers, etc.


  • Look at the differing permitting needs between rural and urban; update and streamline where possible – repeal outdated local laws that prohibit business growth or community prosperity
  • Update land use planning to best use assets while providing appropriate protection
  • Consider dedicated sources of funding for economic development
  • Integrate young citizens in the planning for their community to encourage workforce retention

Those communities and regions who take a broader approach to their economic development strategy and who understand that companies and sites selectors consider a sites/buildings and workforce, along with key infrastructure, all “product” are the ones who will stand out. No one piece can be missing from this mix if the region is truly to be considered competitive for projects and positioned to improve the prosperity for all citizens.

If your organization is looking to take a more holistic approach to economic development, VisionFirst Advisors can create solutions to reach your objectives. Contact us today.