Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Think Locally, Act Locally

The Gazette had a couple of articles this morning that bear reflection under the heading of "economic development -- the rational examples." James Q. Lynch, "E. Iowa's Small Towns Work to Draw Tourists," The Gazette, August 23, 2006, and George C. Ford, "Iowa Ranked No. 4 Nationally in Capital Investment," The Gazette, August 23, 2006.

Both support a theme I discussed in Nicholas Johnson, "Time to Learn From What Works," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 20, 2006.

You've heard the saying, "Think globally, act locally." Now I have nothing against thinking globally. We'd all be better off if there was more of it -- particularly in high places. But we also need to do more thinking locally -- and rationally.

James Lynch's piece reported on the "Downtown Summit," a conference of about 200 representatives from some of Iowa's smaller towns. His story includes the following, "Whatever it is that makes their community special is their 'competitive edge,' said Jim Engle, who grew up in Sigourney and who now heads the Wisconsin Main Street Program. 'Embrace it. Take advantage of your trump card . . ..'"

George Ford reports the happy news that "Iowa is ranked fourth in the nation in terms of capital investment in 2005, according to a report by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young."

Now before Mike Blouin and the Iowa Values Fund folks jump all over that statistic as evidence that giving away the people's money to wealthy individuals and large corporations is working, read on.

Ford tells us, "In Iowa, the state witnessed investments in ethanol plants and wind generation projects. Cedar Rapids was selected as the site of Clipper Windpower’s wind turbine assembly plant." And of course since that Ernst & Young report Siemens has announced it will be manufacturing 11-ton wind generator blades in Iowa.

Note what both these stories have in common. Businesses are thinking locally. Why is this particular capital investment being made in Iowa?

It's like Willie Sutton replied when asked why he robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is." (See FBI History -- Famous Cases -- Willie Sutton.) They came to Iowa to make ethanol because that's where the corn is. They came to Iowa to build wind generation projects because that's where the wind is. They came to Mt. Pleasant to build them because that's where the access to river and rail transportation are (according to Siemens' spokespersons).

In "Time to Learn from What Works" I wrote,

"Logical location. Aquariums do best near oceans; Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va. The Living History Farms, or Dubuque's Mississippi museum on the banks of that great river, gain significance from their location in Iowa. A rain forest does not."

Not every community in America has access to mountains or beaches or other major tourist attractions. "Build it and they will come" only works in the movies. "Tourism" is not the magic formula for most communities. Neither are faux "riverboat" casinos.

Thinking locally -- and rationally -- is.

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