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Are Adirondack Grass-roots Efforts Dead?

October 8, 2012 - Ernest Hohmeyer
When I was a youngster parading around the Adirondack economic development world, I heard a lot about “please bring back big industry that once ruled the Park.” Everything was big in the 80s: big cars, bigger houses and large corporate businesses.

We may not realize it, but we are really caught up in the language of the day. How we speak now about economic development today is totally different in how we thought about it then.

Big was Better

Much of what we thought about centered on “big” and “expansion.” Corporate America and manufacturing ruled the day. Industrial recruitment was very “top down.” In other words, when a big company made up its mind they wanted to come to your community, well, you better get out of the way.

It was this world of “bigness” and fear of it that was one backdrop when the Adirondack Park Agency Act was created in the 70s. There was a concern that large companies and projects would overpower our small communities. In typical “top-down” thinking of the day, it was decided to implement a safety net to preserve the Park. And the battle was perhaps fought just as much on the grounds of how the APA came about, than what it was supposed to do. It didn’t help matters, that this paranoia of the Park being overrun by large industry led to a sometimes fiery and overzealous environmental leadership.

Corporate America and big business by themselves could not revitalize the Park’s economy.

Now you youngsters need to remember this was before the days of “entrepreneurship,” “small business,” and “sustainability.”

Then & Now

I remember going to a community meeting in a small Adirondack town back in those days and suggesting we create a strategy of “growing businesses two jobs at a time.” I was nearly bodily thrown out of this meeting. With longer hair and of younger stature, I could hear the rumblings of being one of those “liberals.” This is ironic to me now as with balding head and mid-life features, my kids in particular, have never used that term on me. In fact they think I am the world’s biggest “conservative.” I wonder if this has something to do with my policy of when they can take the car.

So as the 80s evolved into the 90s and the 21st century dawned, the world of “bottom-up” economic development was born. Developing “community economic plans,” “micro-enterprise” programs and “grassroots” development began. Small business led America’s recovery, in particular those companies with less than 20 employees. With that realistic focus, our Adirondack communities believed they now had a shot at real economic revitalization and were told by many of us “that communities were the drivers.” They could indeed establish the framework of their own destiny and state and federal support would follow. Adirondack community visions were transformed from focusing on “big” industry to “small business.” Tourism, once the orphaned child of our economy is now being looked at as a “transformational” industry to revitalize our Adirondack future. Indeed, there has been much success in this effort but ultimately not enough to reverse our economic plight.

Grass-roots Efforts in Decline?

Just as the days of “top-down industrial recruitment” as the only game in town are over, I wonder if grassroots, community-based economic development are finished as well.

In terms of grassroots economic development, did it really create success all by itself? Or were the most successful local efforts really made up of a partnership of county, regional, state and sometimes even federal stakeholders?

There may be 3 other factors which may be causing the decline of “grass-roots” economic development:

The Internet Everything about today’s world is about complete information that is fast and responsive. Can our local, largely volunteer efforts adequately respond to this new reality?

Further, the internet does not favor one geographic location over the other. It is not about local personalities. It is about information.

New Criteria?

Today, economic development is moving into a new world. Yes, it is still a world of one site over the other and who has the better incentives. But these are increasingly becoming the same from community to community especially in the North Country. What is becoming more important is a “communities energy,” momentum and “quality of life.”

Is it Working?

While there has been some success, by and large community grass-roots efforts and on the other-hand our counties industrial recruitment approaches in the Park have not created the impacts we would have liked.

Can we join them?

New Approaches?

In order to be successful in economic development do we need to stop thinking about physical locations, this site over that one and one community versus the other?

Do we need to get off our community high horse that we are king of the “grass-roots” economic development strategy, that no one can represent us better than ourselves? That other governments are the evil descendants of old efforts of trying to steal your industry?

On the other hand, do county governments, need to stop thinking they cannot get involved with “community development or grass-roots campaigns? After all, their geographic area is too large and they too have limited resources.

Or can they?

Information & Expertise

As the internet tears down these geographic barriers and personalizes information, savvy companies looking to locate here can learn more about your community than we know about it.

And an internet search will not prioritize a village over a town, it will be ruthlessly objective in ranking what a company is looking for.

And this information is far more than business data and is increasingly about personal and family preferences. The smaller the company, the more it is based on subjective features important to the entrepreneur’s personality.

Can we do this in our current world of volunteer local efforts? Are we filled with too many redundant efforts, perspectives and not enough effort in slaying the real beast - and that is information?

Do we really need all of these IDA’s, LDC’s and economic development groups or do we need coordinated “economic information response teams”?

A New Economic Development Approach?

Should we pursue an economic development agenda of bringing all of us together - to use the best of what each of us have to offer? Can that be organized in a way that is not based on separate and competing grass roots efforts but part of a regional coordinated strategy? Can we create a seamless approach among various municipalities and economic development groups that shares one information platform?

Can we be a model for the new "information based economic development world"? Can this model pool the resources of our many fine economic development groups and communities into a coordinated powerhouse mainframe of information? “Welcome to the Adirondack “Hub” of economic development opportunities.”

Economic Development Connectivity

The internet can level the playing field for small communities. If we can harness our individual assets, be focused in a strategic plan and be responsive, we can compete with larger areas. This is one case where the sum of our beautiful parts can turn us into an economic development “hub.”

In business it is all about linking. In the new world of recruitment, it may be about pursuing together, a similar policy of economic development connectivity.

Next week we will talk about one idea to try this out.


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