Today’s economy beckons for local governments to become increasingly involved in economic development. More specifically, programs and initiatives that not only seek to increase the local tax base, but also provide lasting and meaningful job opportunities are paramount to the success of all jurisdictions.
Compared to all prior recessions since the end of World War II, the 2007-2009 recession ranks worst in terms of the total number of jobs lost: greater than 8 million. The key to economic recovery will come in the form of newly created jobs. But where will these jobs come from?
A 2009 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation study, utilizing 30 years of U.S. Census Bureau data, investigated employment trends by industry type and age, and contends that the recovery will be driven by young and small companies. Where can we find a number of our young and small companies?
Downtowns in Georgia are comprised of a patchwork of young and small companies. While, it’s difficult to generalize about all of Georgia’s downtowns because they are located in jurisdictions that vary considerably by population, economic base and location, all of them exhibit tremendous diversity in terms of the health of their local economy.
Downtowns may be occasionally dismissed as distressed and struggling retail districts that are disconnected from the economic mainstream of our communities. Underutilized buildings and vacant storefronts send out notice that the downtown economy has been forgotten. At the same time, economic development initiatives oftentimes bypass downtowns with goals focused on luring new companies to the edge of town.
What may be hidden in the national discussion pertaining to job creation is the honest and steadfast potential that existing and new downtown employers and the industry sectors they represent provide for the future betterment of our economy.
Information exists to help us understand the current state of employment in downtowns. Bill Ryan and Jangik Ji, in their University of Wisconsin-Extension Center for Community and Economic Development October 2011 journal article entitled, “Employment in Small City Downtowns,” argue for a new economic development focus on downtown as the community’s central place of employment.
Many of Georgia’s downtowns have the ability to be a catalyst for job growth. Programs and spaces to support entrepreneurship are available in many of the underutilized buildings of our districts. The knowledge and skills of the labor force can be groomed at various educational institutions and facilities often located downtown. And physical proximity through quality and unique meeting spaces are typically available, allowing for innovation through face-to-face networking and information sharing.
No two downtowns in Georgia are identical. Each possesses a different set of assets and issues that depend on a wide range of variables and, thus, require a different set of specific downtown development policies and practices. Yet each deserves real consideration in the role they have and will continue to play in the economic revival of our state and nation.