• April 29, 2020
  • BY Radius Indiana
  • Blog

Economic Development is More Important Than Ever

Column from the Indiana Economic Development Association

Indiana launched into 2020 with the unemployment rate in many communities hovering at near-record‐
level lows of 2 – 3%. A major concern in many communities was the lack of workers to fill current jobs.
In response, economic developers shifted from attracting businesses to attracting workers.

It is impossible to calculate how drastic the change has been in four short months. Economists project
that unemployment rates will hit double‐digit levels, perhaps approaching rates not seen since the Great
Depression. Over 26M American jobs have been lost effectively canceling all job gains since the Great
Recession. Local stakeholders fear that much of the progress they have made in the last few years to
grow local business, enhance downtown development, and increase the tax base will be threatened as
revenues from various taxing sources will see shortfalls.

In flush times and lean, the practice of economic development is focused on attracting, expanding, and
retaining investment in communities. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, economic developers were
diversifying their services by working with local businesses to help fill open jobs with qualified workers,
collaborating with chambers of commerce and tourism bureaus to promote community assets to attract
new residents and workers to their communities, and working to support local entrepreneurs in starting
and growing their businesses. The evolution of economic development extended to downtown
development because vibrant downtowns are key to attracting and retaining talent.

Fostering single‐family and multi‐family housing stock became a priority for talent attraction. This effort
to develop workforce housing led to community‐wide collaborations between economic developers,
elected officials, and housing developers, who came together to solve unique housing challenges in
communities across the state. Many economic developers have focused on expanding childcare
solutions, as well: high quality and affordable childcare contribute to our quality of life and workforce

The work of economic developers is constantly evolving because they are reacting to the unique needs
of their communities. What works in one region or county may not work in another, so our connections
across the state allow for sharing best practices and the ability to bring new ideas back to our
communities that are tailored to local and regional needs.

As we emerge from the current crisis, communities will be faced with many displaced workers and
closed or struggling businesses. Local economic development organizations will be the natural leaders
helping our state recover because they know the local businesses, understand their workforce needs,
and are experts in attracting and retaining tax base: all critical activities in helping communities claw
back from the coronavirus crisis.

At last count at least 21 Indiana‐based economic development organizations have played a role in the
creation of local disaster relief loan or grant programs to help local small businesses survive during the
stay‐at‐home order. This is another example of their understanding of local business needs and their
ability to adjust their priorities to respond to the needs of their communities.

In the last few years, economic developers have become more focused on supporting entrepreneurship,
encouraging the creation and growth of home‐grown businesses, exactly the kind of support and
expertise that will be needed to revitalize our downtowns post‐coronavirus crisis.

Economic development professionals have developed national networks of business contacts that they
work with when companies want to expand or relocate. These networks can help bring suppliers to a
community to support existing companies. While supporting our existing businesses will be the first
priority, the attraction of new companies to the state will be an area of focus as we move to fully
recover lost jobs and tax base.

As we look toward the future of Indiana, we should all find comfort in knowing that economic
developers are on the front lines and are ready to evolve again to move their communities out of crisis
and into recovery.

Lee Lewellen
Indiana Economic Development Association