This month I had the privilege to interview Jon Roberts, Strategic Manager of TIP Strategies Inc., for the Whittaker Report Podcast.

Jon’s insightful comments reflected the overall Podcast theme of the future of economic development. More specifically, we talked about the role of economic development beyond the traditional metric of job growth. We discussed the impact of remote work, climate change, and the need for community resilience.

What have we accomplished if we arrive at a future state in which the wages earned in the jobs that we have incented no longer provide for the wage earners’ basic needs?  Have we used the land, people, and capital wisely to improve the long-term economic health and viability of the area we serve, or have we just met a political need?

On the subject of remote work, Jon reminds us to be mindful of the implications of remote work for both those who can work remotely and for those who cannot.  He carefully points out the complexity of remote work including the racial implications in which one-in-five remote workers are people of color. He also pointed out the disparity between people without children and those with children that need childcare.

Does it make sense to be attracting companies to communities that have no housing options for workers? COVID has an impact on residential real estate development skewing the market along with low-interest rates, strong demand, and REIT investment, all of which contribute to a tight residential real estate market that drives up costs.

What do we do with the surplus office space created by the desire by many to continue working from home at least part-time? The office real estate market poses some interesting challenges. Retrofitting surplus office space into residential dwellings is cost-prohibitive. Converting older commercial buildings into COVID-approved space with socially distanced and higher HVAC levels can also be cost-prohibitive.

Should economic development organizations be involved in these issues, or should they stay in their lane? This is another question Jon raised relative to the use of community resources. Do economic development organizations need to be more involved than just creating the conditions for job growth and meeting the needs of political leaders? Has time run out? Have we arrived at a reckoning?

The second major topic is we discussed was the implications of climate change. Jon carefully pointed out that climate change is a conflicted topic. He said that the International Economic Development Council’s research task force was conflicted on the issue. Regardless of the cause, the long-term trend towards increasingly violent weather patterns raises the need for resilience.

As we saw in the extreme cold weather in Texas last winter and the hurricanes in Louisiana, we’ve learned that our above-ground electricity infrastructure is fragile. Should we establish long-term solutions to meet the need for reliable electricity and Internet connections? Is this a role an economic development organization should play?

Should economic development organizations be more concerned about the economic viability of the community and ways to make that happen? Jon mentioned a condition called “institutional betrayal,” which is the feelings that a person may have had, for example, after spending a week in their apartment in Texas without heat, electricity, or water. They felt that the institutions they rely on had failed them.

Will there be climate migration where people will move from areas of more violent weather patterns to those with more stability? How do we engage the younger generation on the issues of equity and climate change?

Lastly, and most importantly, has the economic development profession arrived at a reckoning where we are going to need to check our assumptions, reviewing how, when, and where incentives are being used, and what they’re being used to incentivize?

Does the economic development profession, have the strength, courage, and leadership to step out of its lane and take on these more meaningful challenges facing society, and incorporate them into its mission, vision, and goals?