By Dean Whittaker

With over four decades of experience in economic development, I am hard pressed to see a clear path forward for the clients we serve.

Economic development organizations are struggling to re-start their local economies after having been shut down for over two months by a virus.  The stock market continues its erratic behavior propelled by the rollercoaster of these challenging times.  In the midst of all of this, I am thinking of you.  

The temporary patch we have put on our economy in the form of financial stimulus reminds me of the anesthesia I received during my recent surgery. While I was out for three or four hours, blissfully unaware of the world’s happenings, eventually I came out of the anesthesia, and back to this world of virus, fears, polarizations, new possibilities. My sense is that we will go through something similar as the stimulus money is depleted and the 60 to 90 days that we have bought ourselves will become a series of difficult situations for small business by the middle or end of July.   

Several communities have created small business grants and loan funds in order to shore up their existing businesses. While this is a good idea, it doesn’t address the more fundamental issue of a decline in demand for the services they offer.  

The roles economic development organizations (EDOs) play will need to expand beyond business retention and attraction to a much broader community service including for example, re-skilling the workforce and providing executive coaching. EDOs will be asked to understand and bridge the gaps in the supply chains for existing companies and to assist with reshoring of businesses entities to reduce supply chain risk. 

A vaccine is on the horizon with a number of late stage clinical trials underway. AstraZeneca, a British pharmaceutical company, is in final stages of testing their vaccine. In order not to delay the production of the vaccine, they’ve actually begun producing it in anticipation of the successful stage 3 human testing underway with results expected by the end of September.

The work you do day-to-day to help save the livelihood of your communities, to help people find meaningful work, inspires me.  

As I read the peoples’ stories in the NYT by people waiting in line at the food bank in San Antonio, I feel the compassion and love community members are showing to each other, making sure no one goes hungry. The gratitude of those who received the food touched me. Many of the first-time food recipients shared the food they received with their neighbors. How compassion begets compassion: later the former recipients returned to volunteer at the same food bank.  I am reminded in their stories of the struggle we all have in accepting help from others and yet by doing so allow others to serve the greater good. 

As we move through these economic and healthcare challenges at the same time social injustice in this country writ large challenges me to change.  Throughout our current situation, I realize how much we need each other.  

I am grateful for our Governor in Michigan for having kept us lockdown beyond what I felt was necessary and how that decision spared lives by slowing the spread of the virus while denying us the opportunity to work to earn a living. As has been said repeatedly, “we are in this together” and we will get through this together by each doing our part. What you do in economic development is more important now than it has ever been.  As you return to your offices or continue to work from home, remember what you do matters! It allows people to earn a living, put food on the table and a roof over their heads.  

When I see someone wear a face mask, I am reminded that that person is doing it to protect me. They are demonstrating their social responsibility to slow and eventually stop the spread of the virus, so we don’t overwhelm our healthcare system or its workers. 

I feel the optimism returning in me as we approach the Fourth of July, even without parades, picnic gatherings, and with limited fireworks. I continue to wrestle with long overdue social justice issues, gaining an understanding and realizing that it is not enough not be to racist: I need to become anti-racist. During a recent Zoom conversation with several “senior” economic developers and consultants, I felt their desire and determination to change, “speaking truth to power” as we begin to transform our communities, board of directors, and ourselves. I hope I have begun the journey to become a better person and thereby making my community a better, equitable, life-giving place for all.