Democrats are often (unfairly) labeled anti-development, and Republicans are far more likely to be associated with the business community and local chamber of commerce. In fact, I’d argue that Democrats can be even more effective in driving responsible, sustainable development that is in harmony with the wants and needs of the communities they serve. When Democrats take the issue of economic development head-on, they are driven by deep-seated principles of environmental stewardship, creation of good jobs for the local community, and respect for diversity.
In the fall of 2018, I hosted an Economic Development Forum in Middletown Township, in the first year of our Democratic majority. The objective of the forum was to:
This required close cooperation with the township manager and staff but was otherwise not complicated to arrange. The format was a 90-minute discussion, in our township offices. We invited a cross-section of the various interest groups in our community, resulting in about 25 attendees around the table.
These interest groups included:
- Business leaders
- Representatives from our major institutions (hospital, amusement park, shopping mall)
- Labor leaders
- Transportation experts
- County development experts
- Local realtors
- State and local elected officials
- An Easy to Facilitate Process
To encourage leaders to get to know each other and each other’s priorities, we asked each participant“what is your vision for your organization over the next 2-5 years?” By hearing each other’s priorities, we empowered the attendees to start thinking about opportunities to collaborate both during the session and after it’s close.
I developed a list of five municipal growth levers that other municipalities may be able to use wholesale or may need to modify to be reflective of their local environment. We also included “Financing” as a lever under-pinning everything which requires creativity and partnering, but were careful to not let financial constraints dominate the idea generation.
The group addressed each of the levers in turn, and , I asked participants to individually complete a worksheet to make recommendations for the municipality, for their own organization, and collaboratively with others in the room. We then shared out the ideas around the table.
Immediate Results with Long-term Potential
Each participant found the Economic Development Forum valuable and good investment of time. They specifically cited the ability to meet and network with each other as important to their organization’s mission. As a municipality, critiques about how our zoning ordinances are written and how land development procedures inhibit good growth have already resulted in appropriate revisions. A participant from a community college reported that he is looking forward to collaborating to fill a specific labor force need that was raised by business leaders. A labor union representative reported that he is working more closely with our mall for construction opportunities. All participants reported being more mindful of the importance of transportation and walkability/trail linkages and will be more considerate of these concerns in their future projects.