Search for more jobs requires driving vision

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In an editorial today, the Palladium-Item called for Richmond and Wayne County to embrace job growth in the retail and service sectors, as opposed to the manufacturing sector. I generally support their call for an intentional focus on facilitating the kinds of economic growth that Richmond needs, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they address the difference between the immediate concerns of the unemployed ("if you are without work...there is little reason to scoff at any kind of paying job") and the obligations of those working on economic development to focus on a longer-term vision ("a carefully crafted plan for attracting select retail and services businesses can build upon important quality of life factors locally"). This is a distinction often passed over in our community and many others; the most prevalent calls are usually for bringing in any jobs at all, no matter what the benefits and long-term impact on the community.

In Richmond, I often see and hear the conversations about not only straight economic growth decisions, but also issues like zoning variances, environmental protection ordinances, attitude toward community development, etc. guided by the bottom line question of "how many jobs will it create?" It's a good question to ask, but when that question always takes primacy over any other thought of what's best for the community in so many other ways that matter, it becomes a dangerous test to use. My sense and my fear is that this phenomenon is what drives communities like Richmond to morph into giant strip malls, sucking the life out of its own small business district, turning over its natural resources to big box stores, and generally trading long-term considerations for the short-term perception of economic improvement.

As the Palladium-Item notes, the burden of making these important choices should not fall on the folks who have mouths to feed, bills to pay, and very real short-term concerns to address. The responsibility instead falls on those who have the luxury of looking at the long term - the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corporation, the City and County governments, and the myriad private and public organizations and individuals who participate in the conversation about "what's best for our community." These entities should not be scared into pursuing just any opportunity for bringing jobs to town, because this approach will only reinforce the slow and steady erosion of Richmond's diversity, heritage, and values, even if it does sprinkle some new jobs into the mix for now. Instead, they should discern a larger vision for how they can shape and mold Richmond's future economic growth to benefit not only the current citizens, but also the generations to come. This means breaking away from our historical approach of "precedent equals justification" and "bottom line jobs created", and taking some risks in the name of preserving and building on what Richmond was, is, and can be.

This driving vision should not only be reflected in the mission statements of these economic development entities, but also codified in the laws and policies that guide our economic choices as a community. Most of the existing zoning laws and ordinances are focused on specifying what activities are prohibited - chemicals you can't use, the way properties/buildings can't look, the land uses that aren't acceptable, and so on; it would seem that a community intent on providing a better future for its citizens would also specify the activities and business decisions that are desirable, that will be supported and encouraged by the city planners.

To that end, I propose that we should at least carefully consider these kinds of questions about a given opportunity, if not adopt something like them as a formal standard for how we allocate resources and making decisions:

  1. Will the new business contribute positively to Richmond's image and character as a place where you'd want to grow up, live, raise your children, retire, etc.?
  2. Will the new business compete with existing businesses in a way that will limit their continued growth and success (especially if the existing business is locally owned and operated and the new one is not)?
  3. Will the new business contribute to strong local business districts and the identity of Richmond's neighborhoods?
  4. Will the new business minimize its impact on the harm to physical resources of Richmond's landscape - re-using existing structures where possible, avoiding environmental degradation, etc?
  5. Will the new businesses proactively consider quality of life issues in Richmond, not only of its employees, but also of the neighboring businesses and residents affected by its presence? Will it treat these people with concern and respect for their wants and needs?

Again, those are just rough examples; a more thorough approach like Richmond's current work to develop a new comprehensive plan would be required to create a complete list of the questions our community needs to ask of potential new members, and how we should measure the responses. One of the hardest parts, of course, will be the public fall-out when we do come to the point of saying "there may be some immediate jobs down that path, but there's long-term security in this other direction" or even, to a particular potential new employer, "we really don't want you here." Those looking for work may cringe and complain that they are being let down, and the politicians whose popularity and re-electability are tied up in public perception of economic choices may question any such approach. For a true positive driving vision to take root, then, a shift in thinking (and the accompanying personal sacrifices and compromises) for all involved will be required.

As I've said before, we have the ability, not to mention the duty, to take these important choices seriously. I'm glad the Palladium-Item is at least partly acknowledging that duty and the complexities of taking it on; I hope that the community leaders involved in these efforts -- and all of us, really -- will stand back and consider the big picture of their role in shaping Richmond's future, not just the immediate economic impact.

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