Economic development can be community development. It can be environmental and human development. Over long decades of low-road development, we seem to have forgotten these things. But now we have to recognize there is a choice. There is a high road.
We’ve seen the sights on the low road, where firms wield the power and reap the benefits of public resources, giving little in return. The low road is dotted with crumbling schools, abandoned buildings, poorly planned transportation systems, unemployment and job insecurity, and a profound lack of corporate accountability. Workers who live there are considered interchangeable, and worker skill development is driven by price competition to the lowest common denominator. Low roads tend to stretch all the way from the central city to remote suburbs, where industry flocks toward abatements and away from declining cities all the while building new buildings and highways.
So where’s the high road? It is where business sees high-skilled labor as an asset, and ties its own economic health to the health of the community. It is where the public and private meet to find and improve existing resources so that enterprises can sustain themselves more efficiently, rather than following the tear-down build-up tear-down cycles of the low-road. It is where collaborations between industry and workers, planners and researchers seek first to revitalize communities abandoned by business, reduce sprawl, and invest in public goods like education, transportation systems and infrastructure. Where quality production and a skilled workforce make profits, instead of low costs and downsizing, that’s where the high road lies.
On the high road, a city attracts business not through unconditional tax abatements, but through a skilled workforce and sophisticated infrastructure. When subsidies are given, they are given with the assumption that the entire community will benefit from the firm’s presence in the region. In recent times, we have seen this principle — often called “closing off the low road” — in policies like Cleveland’s new living wage ordinance. Minimum pay and environmental standards eliminate the inevitable downward spiral in labor relations, accountability and environmental impact created by low-road competition.
Unusual partners often unite behind high road development. Cities and inner-ring suburbs, workers and environmentalists, central city people of color and working class whites, organized labor and urban-based business owners: these groups don’t always agree, but they should all support this new approach. Why?
1. It’s metropolitan – locating employment and production in cities and inner-ring suburbs where people, skills and infrastructure are already densely packed. This combats poverty by placing jobs closer to low-income people who need them. It also helps the inner city stay vibrant and remain a place where people work as well as live.
2. It’s green – reducing sprawl by emphasizing downtown and inner ring development and renovation over ex-urban development of park, farm and forest land. This approach uses existing buildings instead of letting them turn into board-ups. It rewards environmentally-conscious firms that use green technologies and produce goods in sustainable ways.
3. It promotes quality – emphasizing high-quality, high-wage, high-skill, high value-added jobs over the opposite. These jobs are better for workers. Plus, firms providing them are more committed to the community, because they’ve spent resources training their high-skill workforce.
4. It’s efficient – targeting subsidies and tax dollars carefully, instead of wasting precious resources on bad business and sprawl. Putting infrastructure demands where infrastructure already exists is also efficient. This approach is good government and good for the economy.
5. It’s sustainable – thinking about the future, focusing on retention and upgrading, seeking to cooperate instead of compete with neighbors. At its best, it can promote good jobs that will survive the next decade and the next generation.
There is a choice.