Economic Development is Everyone’s Job

When the top choice for the Grand Traverse County administrator job recently emerged, it was an encouraging sign – one that underscored the importance of effective economic development strategies in moving the community forward.

Among the curious and sometimes frustrating aspects of local government in northern Michigan is its often vacillating approach to economic development. Some municipalities embrace the concept and have aggressively pursued economic growth strategies for their communities. Others seem to prefer a hands-off approach and are satisfied letting the private sector take the lead in how things evolve. A few have been downright hostile to the notion that local government has a role in spurring growth and development – a view that, fortunately, appears to be on the wane.

Given the tentacles of government that reach into the economic sphere, including land-use regulations, tax policy, labor law, infrastructure decisions, and more, it seems silly to argue that government, even at a local level, plays a small or insignificant role in economic development. Quite the opposite case can be made when considering the local governments that have put the most effort and resources into spurring local growth – including the county’s effective brownfield redevelopment office and its work with Traverse City’s Downtown Development Authority – generated amazing results and an impactful bang for the public’s buck.

As more people come to understand the connection between public policy and economic prosperity, it’s important that approaches to this key community metric are more inclusive and encompassing, rather than more exclusive and specific. There’s been a lot of focus lately about attracting more “high-paying” jobs to the region. That’s important, to be sure. Communities across the country are targeting upwardly mobile careers and emerging technology sectors.

But for every high-paying job there is at least one lower-paying service job that needs to be filled. Job creators and talent are necessary at every level, and over-correcting an economic development strategy at the exclusion of any one of them would be a mistake. Our advantage lies in the unique natural attractions that surround us, and the foundational work that’s been laid, which growing companies and their worker forces find best suited to their futures and lifestyles. That’s why it’s important to understand that multiple sectors play a role in our region’s future economic prosperity.

The non-profits and organizations that work to protect our environment play a huge role in economic development, as our natural beauty is a true ace in the hole for attracting talent. Likewise for our educational institutions, who will nurture and teach the children of those we hope to attract. Our early childhood sector is critical to drawing in and retaining the young families we want to see. We need to bolster our service sector; the higher-income professionals we desire need to have workers in the shops, wineries, restaurants, and related operations they like to frequent. Our chambers of commerce need to be effective partners in creating business-friendly environments for companies new and old to ensure economic growth flourishes across the business spectrum.

Finally, the critical role our local and state decision-makers play in creating fertile and sustainable economic development can’t be overstated. It’s incumbent on them – in the fierce competition across the globe for economic growth – to double down on the policies and strategies that work, eliminate those that make our region and state less attractive to business development, and build the infrastructure needed to keep it growing.

Many hands make light work, the old saying goes. And it’s been an effective approach we’ve used for generations to make the Grand Traverse area the diverse and vibrant place we enjoy today. It won’t be a committee, a study, or task force that takes us to the next level. It will take all our region’s business and community leaders, their employees, our young professionals, retirees, and everyone in between to realize the economic potential within our grasp.

Doug Luciani is CEO of Traverse CONNECT and the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him at