Stephen Jordan's Speech on Business as an Economic Catalyst: C-I-V-I-C

Want Your City to Be An Economic Catalyst? Be CIVIC-Minded

This article is adapted from comments BCLC's Stephen Jordan made at the City Age conference on December 3, 2012.

The question we are being asked to discuss today is: what makes a city an economic catalyst?  Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all definition, as cities with as varied profiles as New York, Austin, and Kansas City have figured out strategies for catalyzing economic activity.  But I think you can’t go too far wrong if you pay attention to five core concepts and be C-I-V-I-C minded.

The first C stands for Culture. Richard Florida has made a big deal about the creative class and how valuable it is, but I am thinking of something different. San Francisco and Austin have very distinct cultures that attract a certain kind of person. But so does Nashville, and it has been very successful in creating a booming portfolio of economic catalysts from CMT and Bridgestone to Humana. Different kinds of cultures attract different kinds of demographics and different industry profiles. Santa Fe has done this. So has Orange County. Culture gives people emotional cues about where they might fit in, and enjoy life with people who share their values.

The first I stands for Infrastructure Systems. Austin, Charlotte, and Atlanta will tell you that their airports helped them attract business. New York and Racine both brag about the purity of their water. Oklahoma City and Purcellville, VA, will sell you on their sustainable systems. Infrastructure systems are platforms for productivity. Low-cost energy was a competitive advantage of Cedar Rapids until it was seriously threatened by the failure of its flood control infrastructure. Infrastructures don’t work in a vacuum; they reinforce or degenerate each other. Businesses study these things. They look at the total cost or productivity of a given community’s infrastructure – particularly those businesses with big capital and employment requirements.

The V stands for Vision. One of my favorite examples of this is the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. When the RTP concept was first proposed, North Carolina was in the bottom five states in literacy and per capita income.  Now that region is a recognized center for academic and research excellence. Major companies employ thousands of people, and per capita income in the region is $10,000 over the national average. The vision of the 1950s has become the economic powerhouse of today. Before the fire of 1870, Chicago was known as a slaughterhouse where animals went to die. They say that you could smell the city from 20 miles away. This city was able to hold a World’s Fair just 20 years after the great fire, and then it went on to greater glory as it implemented the Burnham Plan to remodel its core urban area. Orlando was an orange grove before Walt Disney realized it could be perfect for a theme park. Las Vegas is another classic example of how Vision can drive business.

The second I stands for “Interconnectedness.” So many cities keep thinking they have to be destinations – great places to work, play and live. But a city’s value does not just lie in its parts, but in how they connect to each other, and how the city connects to its region and to the world. Dallas, Atlanta, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago are not just destinations, they are hubs. Boston likes to consider itself THE Hub. Now, IT connectedness may be a commodity in a few years, but Google has helped Kansas City gain a first mover advantage in the short-term by helping the city build out its IT infrastructure. There are possibilities in Kansas City for connected firms that did not exist before. That will attract people. Charlotte is embedding a rail terminal inside its airplane complex which will create a form of product and supply chain interconnectedness. That’s interesting for companies with intermodal interests. The Hampton Roads area may get a whole lot more interesting when the Panama Canal widening project finishes, but its freight and road network need a lot more work.

And that brings me to the last C for “Capital.” Des Moines has some educational assets, but the real higher ed flagships for Iowa are in Iowa City and Ames. So what?  Des Moines is where the money is. How does Silicon Valley go from defense tech to IT hub? Venture capital feels welcome there. Drive around Palo Alto and Mountain View and you will see as many high-end financial service firms as IT firms. The reason the bank robber Willy Sutton robbed banks was because “that’s where the money was.” That’s the same reason New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Seattle have constantly been able to reinvent themselves – they are places where people believe they can make money for themselves.

I sometimes worry that too many cities are trying to chase the same actors by trying to be good at the same 2-3 selling points. They tout their tax structure or that they are going to be a mecca for green jobs. Instead, we should leverage the strength of the nation, which is that we have a lot of diversity and that different communities exist to cater to different interests, tastes and cultures. It would be boring, and frankly impossible, for every city to try and be New York. There’s a great deal of strength and benefit for us all for cities to sharpen up their own CIVIC brands and differentiate themselves clearly in the minds of entrepreneurs, growth companies and job seekers. 

Score well on the CIVIC scale, and good things should happen economically as a result. 

Thank you very much.