Thursday, August 17, 2017

Topeka Momentum 2022 Receives Outstanding Coverage From Local Newspaper

By Kat Lapersonerie, Administrative Assistant

Over the years, our team has seen many of our clients invest significant time and energy into their strategy launch. We’ve consistently seen our clients cultivate positive relationships with media partners, government officials, institutions and corporations in the effort of successfully marketing their community economic and development strategies.

Communities such as Des Moines, who since 2011 has partnered with top leaders in the Central Iowa region on their Capital Crossroads initiative, have had highly successful campaigns. In 2010, Birmingham launched a comprehensive five-year economic development strategy by the name of Blueprint Birmingham. Other communities like Watertown, South Dakota have been praised by their local media for their H20-20 visioning process. Their initiative has been recognized as “perhaps the most intensive citizen-driven effort ever developed in South Dakota” by the Watertown Public Opinion newspaper.

Market Street’s recently completed process in Topeka, Kansas has also received great coverage from the local newspaper, The Topeka Capital-Journal. But on Sunday August 6, the community and the newspaper took things to the next level with an outstanding 30-page special section that highlights the community’s Momentum 2022 strategy and the programs, initiatives, and people that will work to make Topeka-Shawnee County a more successful and prosperous place.

The strength of the Momentum 2022 strategy and the media coverage can be attributed to visionary community and staff leadership. A volunteer Steering Committee chaired by Shawnee County Commissioner Shelly Buhler, Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast, and Bartlett & West CEO Keith Warta. The Committee was comprised of dynamic leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, including the publisher of The Topeka Capital-Journal, Zach Ahrens. With the aid of his team, Matt Pivarnik, who is the President and CEO of the Topeka Chamber and Go Topeka, has worked closely and tirelessly with The Topeka Capital-Journal and others to ensure that Momentum 2022 is well-publicized as the blueprint for the community’s future. Based on this coverage we would say they are well on their way!

To view all articles on Momentum 22 visit:

A sampling of some of the articles from Momentum 2022 here:

· Collaborate for a strong community: Despite challenges, Topeka residents see city moving in positive direction

· Live chat: Covering all the bases of Momentum 2022 in Topeka, Shawnee County

· Grow a diverse economy: Tracking metrics will help Topeka leaders determine the right path

· Young professionals leave Topeka to pursue career, come back to work and live

Friday, August 4, 2017

Nuclear Energy: A Crystal Ball into the Future Talent Shortage?

By: Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Nuclear energy has always been a thing of fascination for me. Growing up, my father, who makes sure communities across the Southeast can safely evacuate their population in case of a nuclear meltdown like Fukushima, would casually tell us what went wrong at Chernobyl or Three Mile Island around the dinner table. This lecture also came with a basic lesson in the intricacies of nuclear power generation. So, whenever I come across any headline with “nuclear” in the title it is an automatic must read. Yesterday this title popped up on my newsfeed: “South Carolina May Spend 60 Years Paying for Nukes Never Built.”[1] An odd headline since just a few years ago pundits were claiming that a “nuclear renaissance” was soon to occur in the United States.

What happened to the nascent renaissance? A combination of factors prevented it from becoming more than a declarative statement. The rise of cheap natural gas and cost-competitive clean energy technologies like wind and solar are two primary reasons. Both have called into question the high front-end and continuing operational costs of nuclear power. But the decline of the nuclear power industry in the United States is further compounded by another important period in American history: Three Mile Island. As a result of the partial meltdown, Three Mile Island put a halt to nuclear power plant construction and when it kicked back into gear, new construction faced immense public opposition. As a result, the technical expertise developed during the post-war “Atoms for Peace” movement subsided as new construction of nuclear power plants came to a virtual standstill. Flash forward to today and the results of curtailed talent development within the industry is taking its toll.

According to the article, Scana Corporation and Santee Cooper decided to mothball the V.C. Summer project – an AP1000 nuclear power plant designed by Westinghouse. Westinghouse, a Toshiba company, declared bankruptcy in 2017 due, in part, because the company’s newly designed AP1000 reactor had never been built before. The newness of the design and understandable regulatory hurdles led to cost overruns. But a lack of talent was also cited as a key concern as stated by the New York Times, “Not only was the design new, but, because nuclear construction had been dormant for so long, American companies also lacked the equipment and expertise needed to make some of the biggest components and construct the projects.”[2] This statement in March 29, 2017 came just six years after the Nuclear Energy Institute – an industry trade group – warned that more than a third of the nuclear industry’s workforce could retire by 2016. The Institute projected that 25,000 skilled nuclear industry workers would be needed to sustain and grow the sector by 2015.[3]

Indeed, looking at employment figures for the nuclear electric power generation (NAICS 221113) sector reveals that retirements along with utilities decommissioning outdated plants have had an impact on total employment within the sector. From 2006 to 2016, employment within the nuclear power generation sector declined by 18.9 percent. In 2016, there were 12,000 fewer nuclear power generation jobs compared to 2006. This data is likely a conservative estimate since it does not account for construction and engineering jobs attached to building and designing nuclear power plants.  

Nuclear Energy Employment, 2006-2016
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Nuclear energy looks to be in a precarious position in the United States. With only one new plant under construction, the nuclear renaissance predicted some years ago is not likely to materialize. In the big picture, one wonders whether nuclear power is a figurative canary in the coal mine for other business sectors soon to be impacted by Baby Boom retirements. Compounded with under-investment, workforce sustainability issues could undermine the health and wellness of entire sectors of the economy. Simply put, a lack of technical expertise, skilled talent, and knowledge exchange between new and retiring workers were contributing factors to cost overruns in new nuclear plant construction – today’s U.S. nuclear energy sector simply didn’t have the experience and know-how needed to foresee engineering and construction challenges or proactively deal with them in a cost-effective manner when they arose.

This is an unsettling lesson nuclear energy in the United States has to offer to other business sectors throughout the economy. Underinvested talent development combined with baby boom retirements can hasten creative destruction, eliminating entire business sectors at worst and significantly curtailing their growth at best.

[1] Doan, Lynn and Chediak, Mark. “South Carolina May Spend 60 Years Paying for Nukes Never Built.” Bloomberg. August 1st, 2017.
[2] Cardwell, Diane and Soble, Jonathan. “Westinghouse Files for Bankruptcy, in Blow to Nuclear Power.” New York Times. March 29th, 2017.
[3] Nuclear Energy Institute. “Help Wanted 25,000 Skilled Workers.” Summer 2011. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How far do your wages go?

By Ranada Robinson, Research Manager

About a week ago, one of the hot topics in my social media feeds was that “no full-time minimum wage worker can afford a 2-bedroom apartment in any US state.” According to the National low Income Housing Coalition, in some states, including most Northeastern states, Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Virginia, and Washington, workers would need to make over $20 to afford the average two-bedroom apartment. This is an economic development issue because housing availability and affordability are major considerations for the talent that companies desire. Sometimes it seems that these conversations spur debates over how to address the needs of the poorest among us, but that is shortsighted—the ability to obtain affordable and decent housing can be a major hurdle for entry-level workers, including teachers, police officers, and other professions that are paramount to a community, but in many communities those workers have to commute from afar or make other arrangements that they would maybe prefer not to, such as having one or more roommates.

So as I read through the report, I became interested in the broader question of how far do wages go in communities? So updating the data I gathered a couple of years ago, I re-examined the wage/cost differential, which compares the relative wage of a metro area to the relative cost of living index[1] as published by the Council for Community and Economic Research. This analysis allows us to really examine how competitive a community’s wages are in terms of being able to afford that community’s cost of living.

The following table presents the twenty metros that have the most competitive wages as a percentage of the national average annual wage across all metros compared to the relative cost of living. Consistent with the 2014 analysis, Texas metros and several high-growth Southern (like Austin, Atlanta, Dallas, and Nashville), and Midwest metros (like are on this list. Also consistent with the 2014 analysis, the Bridgeport, Connecticut MSA has a very high cost of living compared to the national average, but it still ranks as favorable because its average annual wage is similarly much higher than the national average, so the average worker can handle the expense of living in this metro.

[1] For this analysis, the primary urban area in the C2ER Cost of Living Index was chosen for comparison in instances where a metropolitan area or division has multiple urban areas represented.

Top 20 Metros with Favorable Wage/Cost Differentials, 2016

Source: Council for Community and Economic Research; Economic Modeling Specialists Intl.

Not surprisingly, the twenty metros with the most concerning differentials are in states known for their high cost of living, like Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and New York. However, it is interesting to note that two southern communities with lower than average costs of living appear in this list: Auburn, AL (which was in the top 10 in the 2014 data) and Hilton Head, SC. This goes to show that the cost of living on its own does not always tell the full story—but analyses like the housing report or this wage/cost differential allow us to gain context and perspective.

Twenty Metros with the Least Favorable Wage/Cost Differentials, 2016

Source: Council for Community and Economic Research; Economic Modeling Specialists Intl.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Colossal Failure

By J. Mac Holladay, President, CEO, and Founder

Late last week, the Kansas Legislature overrode the Governor’s veto to repeal the radical tax plan passed in 2013. The program was supposed to usher in a flood of new jobs. The promised job growth never came. In fact, Kansas gross domestic product grew only .2 percent last year compared to 1.6 percent nationally. Several surrounding states with stable tax systems have flown by Kansas both in job creation and increased investment.

What did come to the state was a huge deficit in the state budget and drastic cuts to education at all levels. During this failed experiment, state school spending dropped from $4,400 per pupil to $3,800 with the poorest districts suffering the most.

The state had $700 million less revenue in 2014 than the year before, and this March the Kansas Supreme Court ruled that the funding for public education is “unconstitutionally low” and must be changed.

As Republican State Senator Dinah Skyes said, “we had to take a vote to say no and say, this is not the right direction.” While every state seeks to be competitive on costs, the Kansas experiment went to the extreme in letting thousands of small businesses pay nothing at all and radically reduce personal income taxes.

Earlier this year, one University President in Kansas asked me, how can I plan anything in this atmosphere? A key component of good tax policy is certainty. Both public and private leaders need to know what is going to happen related to stability and revenue flow. Companies looking to expand or locate want to know that their employees will have excellent educational opportunities for them and their children.

Beyond talent, quality of place is the number one factor in healthy local economies. Our firm has been working in several cities in Kansas recently, all are dedicated to making their place better. In recent years, they have been unable to know what exactly was coming or to get any help from the state. Now, maybe that can change. The Legislature has approved a $1.2 billion revenue increase over the next two years.

Kansas is another clear example, we cannot cut our way to prosperity.

Friday, May 5, 2017

“Green Collar” Ag Jobs are Viable Urban Career Paths

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President

Agriculture was once the largest employment sector in the country. That time has long passed, of course, pushed aside by advances in industrial technology and the growth of services linked to ever-expanding urban metropolitan areas. Ag jobs are still prevalent in rural communities, though direct on-farm employment now accounts for about 1.3 percent of the U.S. economy.

Ironically, momentum is building to leverage the ag sector for job creation in the very places that eclipsed the farm lifestyle generations ago: urban cores. While so-called “urban agriculture” has been around a while, its benefits were mostly seen as augmenting local food supplies, reusing dormant, often unsightly vacant land, and providing vulnerable populations with alternatives to dangerous street life. These benefits all still apply; however, the growing prominence of colorfully termed “green collar jobs” – including agriculture – has brought an economic development justification into the mix. This is especially true for locally based wealth-building strategies not tied to traditional economic development pursuits such as corporate attraction or expansion of established firms.

On the vanguard of community wealth building (CWB) strategies tied to green collar jobs is Democracy Collaborative, a non-profit advocating a “new economic system” of shared corporate ownership and management. Their best known acolyte is Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland. Among its three worker-owned businesses, Green City Growers is the largest food-production greenhouse in a core urban area in the U.S.

In fact, urban agriculture as economic development is becoming so prevalent that it would be impossible to list every prominent effort being implemented across the country. Instead, I’ll highlight a few green shoots (pun intended) of the movement.

  • Advocacy organization Urban Farming has developed a Coexistence Model that raises awareness about key positive impacts of urban ag. Among these is Job Creation. Urban Farming hosts community workshops to raise awareness about green collar jobs and connects residents to job training opportunities, particularly in green industries. The group has installed several Urban Farming Edible Walls in U.S. cities to provide training and job opportunities through living wall systems.
  • Green Collar Foods is a platform for the urban environment that empowers a select group of local residents with both the agricultural and technological tools to produce specialty crops that yield a financial return, combat “food deserts,” and supplement nutritional gaps. Part of a recently announced initiative in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighborhood, Green Collar Foods will create an indoor vertical farming campus in the community.
  • Detroit is the city that has most enthusiastically embraced urban agriculture as an economic development model. In fact, a full-fledged urban “agrihood” is launching in the city’s North End, supported by the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, the most aggressive state-run urban agriculture movement in the country. To plant seeds of food entrepreneurship (pun #2) in the city’s youth, the Detroit Food Academy works with local educators, chefs, and business owners to inspire young Detroiters (ages 13-24) through self-directed entrepreneurial experiences rooted in food.
  • REV Birmingham, a local revitalization agency in Birmingham, Alabama, launched the Urban Food Project to build a robust local food economy while creating healthy food access. The program assists corner store owners in the purchasing, marketing, and selling of fresh produce. The Project also helps farmers plan their crops and create access to new markets by distributing their goods.
  • Findlay Kitchen is an 8,000 square foot, shared-use kitchen space located in the historic Findlay Market district in Cincinnati. The Kitchen is a nonprofit organization that supports new and existing food entrepreneurs by providing affordable access to commercial-grade kitchen equipment and ample storage space. As a food business incubator, the facility partners with external programs and organizations to provide the necessary training, mentorship, and resources to aid business growth.
  • Coordinated coalitions directing local food and urban agriculture systems are also becoming more prevalent. The Atlanta Local Food Initiative is a network focused on building a local food system that enhances human health, promotes environmental renewal, fosters local economies, and links rural and urban communities. The Greater Cincinnati Regional Food Council works to promote a healthy, equitable, and sustainable food system within its ten-county region. The Sonoma County Food System Alliance is a county-based coalition striving to improve the local food system through community engagement and collective action.

There are literally dozens if not hundreds more examples of urban agriculture and green collar job efforts being implemented across the country, including many focused on transitioning soldiers into green collar employment after leaving the armed forces. If your community isn’t accruing the multiple benefits of an urban agriculture strategy – job creation, locally produced fresh food, urban revitalization, health and wellness, crime reduction, beautification, etc. – you’re missing out on a really fast-growing trend (final pun).

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Crisis That Never Came

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Regional planning is not a field rife with natural law. The field, and professionals in it, deal with messy, complex problems that are difficult to codify into over-arching, all-encompassing truths. However, if there is one truism in the field that resembles natural law it is this: new capacity yields new demand. It is a phrase that flows off the tongues of transportation planners as easily as pedestrian traffic moves on any Atlanta sidewalk. It is a phrase to use when a governor promotes a new, roads-focused transportation plan or a county commission chooses to add lanes to a major artery. It is a phrase to use right before casually extolling the need for a robust transportation network that encompasses bicycles, buses, streetcars, and/or light rail. And while planners have had numerous opportunities to test out the affirmative, they have rarely had the opportunity to test the rule’s corollary at scale. What happens if you take away significant road capacity in a major metropolitan area? Does it result in less traffic? 

Atlanta is now in the midst of discovering whether the tried and true traffic rule does in fact have a corollary. On March 30th, a bridge connecting the downtown connector to Georgia 400 and I-85 collapsed in a fire. The major artery handles approximately one quarter of a million cars on a daily basis. And while it is still too early to tell, the initial results indicate that “carmageddon” is unlikely to happen as a result of the disaster and that gridlock will not render Atlanta residents incapable of doing anything save for wallowing in despair. It has not been the doomsday scenario many (i.e. all) were expecting, and certainly, not what public officials were planning for. The city and the region is still open for business, children still go to school, and the supply chain still flows. The city and the metro region is surviving. Regional systems are not inflexible, immovable objects. Regional systems adapt and adjust to new conditions should disaster strike the system’s core. 

Some initial observations that engender adaptation include the following: 

  • Folks will adjust behavior: While complete data is scarce on the entirety of the event, more would-be drivers are utilizing alternatives. On March 31st, the day after the collapse, MARTA reported a 25 percent increase in ridership and an 80 percent increase in Breeze Card sales according to MARTA’s CEO Keith Parker. Station parking across the network is at or near capacity. Whether these new riders become transit converts is still anyone’s guess. 
  • No matter how terrible the commute, folks will still drive: Surely there is a limit to the pain and suffering a driver is willing to undergo. Atlanta commuters may be reaching that upper limit, but right now folks are still driving. Buford Highway, a road that runs parallel to the I-85 Bridge is jammed with cars during a now lengthened rush hour. If the bridge collapse has done anything it has shifted traffic to local roads. Whether it is Piedmont or Cheshire Bridge, I-85 and Georgia 400 traffic (the highways most heavily impacted by the collapse) is being funneled onto local roads that now serve demand beyond their capacity. These smaller road capillaries are central to Atlanta’s ability to thwart wholesale crisis. 

The caveat of these observations is that the situation is still evolving and there is not yet a complete picture how the Atlanta’s transportation system adapted throughout the entirety of the crisis. The situation still has the potential to deteriorate in the short term. Over the long term, it is likely that this event will become just another blip in commuters’ memories with no real change in commuter behavior. This is not a failure of Atlantans to leverage this crisis for some higher purpose. Rather, it speaks to the resiliency and flexibility of regional systems and the people who live in them.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Making the Most of Inter-City Visits

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President

The inter-city visit is a ubiquitous program for most economic development organizations (EDOs) of size in the U.S. They typically involve an EDO enlisting volunteers and partners to travel to a community achieving some type of success – either in its economy as a whole or some aspect of economic, community, or workforce development – to observe, learn, and potentially glean best practices for application back home. Usually the only cost to participate is to cover air travel expenses and lodging. Many well-heeled EDOs offer inter-city visits as perks to top investors.

In a world as cutthroat as economic development, the inter-city visit has always struck me as possibly the most welcoming example of inter-community collegiality and goodwill. After all, most of the places visiting you are existing or potential competitors for jobs and talent. In reality, the keys to the kingdom are not necessarily in identifying best-practice programs (which are mostly well known), but in seeing how communities implement them and the role of public and private partners and volunteers in these efforts. From my experience, leadership capacity is the number one determinant of economic success.

I wholeheartedly believe that inter-city visits are an excellent use of resources and provide invaluable benefit for EDOs and the communities they represent. Many effective policies and programs being considered for strategic implementation can be hard to conceptualize in practice; witnessing them being advanced and experiencing their benefits can be revelatory for practitioner and volunteer alike. Even brick-and-mortar projects with detailed renderings are typically more compelling to in person.

My principal pet peeve with inter-city visits is the practice of travelling to a city or region with no real application to your community’s priority challenges and opportunities. As famously successful as Austin, Texas (a hugely popular inter-city destination) has been, the presence of a state capital, major research university with 50,000 smart kids, a decades-long live music scene, and beautiful rolling hills and rivers is not something most places can emulate.

So my advice to EDOs implementing inter-city visit programs is to pick aspirational places you have something in common with, be it geography, economic structure, climate, institutional presence, demographic composition – whatever. Just find destinations where learnings can translate into actionable initiatives back home with good likelihoods for success. While it is certainly most cost-effective to plan travel around agendas packed full of cool things to see and people to meet, EDOs shouldn’t be opposed to scheduling single-issue trips centered on a major competitive challenge or opportunity. For example, if you want to launch a comprehensive cradle-to-career talent development initiative, visit a community that’s knocked one out of the park like Cincinnati or Nashville and cram the trip full of every last opportunity to learn from their experiences.

From my long-ago (and mostly suppressed) experiences as a screenwriter, there is one piece of advice on story development that sticks in my head: If you want a scene to have optimal impact, you should “show it not say it.” In other words, don’t use voiceover to talk about how beautiful Mrs. Weathersby was, show a faded portrait of her. While a stretch, I’m going to use this example for EDO inter-city visits; rather than saying how great a place or program is, let your partners and volunteers see it. And, as with the best movies, keep the examples you show them in the realm of plausible believability.