Friday, February 22, 2019

Co-Ops for Economic and Community Development

Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant

Although they have been around for nearly two centuries, cooperative businesses (co-ops) have never really attracted much attention from economic developers. That may soon change.

Business start-ups are at an all-time low. Income inequality is at a high. And, we are still reeling from the effects of the unbridled, investor-driven, socially irresponsible capitalism that led to the great recession. Co-ops offer an interesting and more socially responsible alternative to shareholder- and proprietor-owned business structures. Economic developers take note.

The Urban Institute lists co-ops among their “Five trends to watch in community and economic development in 2019.” They predict that there will be more policy and philanthropic interest in co-ops, especially worker co-ops in 2019.

So, what exactly is a co-op (aside from an alternative grocery store)? And, what’s so interesting about them from a community and economic development standpoint?

A co-op is a democratically run business whose members are also its owners. Co-ops exist to serve the needs of their members (rather than to maximize profit) and each member has a say in the business decisions the co-op makes. Member-owners answer to one another, not to outside investors. And, they return surplus revenue to one another too instead of rewarding outside investors with their profits. The co-op philosophy is a community approach to business where they are built by the community and for the purpose of serving the community.

Most of us are familiar with grocery co-ops, many of which started as buying clubs that allowed members to pool their resources in order to place bulk orders and save money. Credit unions are also based on a co-op model. Co-ops run many resident-owned buildings in large cities and are becoming more popular in mobile home parks as well. There are worker co-ops, agricultural marketing co-ops, insurance co-ops, utility co-ops, childcare co-ops, and dairy co-ops, just to name a few. A 2010 study conducted by the University of Wisconsin found that there were some 29,000 co-ops in all sectors of the American economy, their revenues exceeded $3 trillion, and they employed more than 850,000 people.

Economic and community development agencies should be interested in co-ops for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • Co-ops pool human, financial, and other resources, extending the opportunity of entrepreneurship to those without the capital or resources to start a new business alone.
  • Co-ops spread the wealth by providing jobs and business ownership opportunities to community members. According to a 2008 study from the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, owning a business is a way for workers to build personal assets, which can lead to higher income, higher educational attainment, and other positive social outcomes.
  • Co-ops can reduce income inequality. According to a report from co-operatives UK, worker co-ops have narrower pay differentials between executive and non-executive workers, leading to reduced income inequality.
  • Co-ops are resilient. According to a 2012 CICOPA study, co-ops had fewer closures and fewer job losses than non-co-ops during the great recession.
  • Co-ops recirculate resources in the community
    Co-ops exist to meet members’ needs, not to deliver profits to outside investors. Their nature is inherently locally-based and participatory, which makes them well-positioned to contribute directly to community vitality and stability. And, that’s the ultimate goal for community and economic development isn’t it? We want vital and stable communities.

    Monday, January 14, 2019


    By J. Mac Holladay, CCE, PCED, LM, HLM

    Over this holiday season, I was able to read several books on topics of great interest to me. One was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book, “Leadership: In Turbulent Times.” What Goodwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, does is to examine the lives of four American Presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. She has previously written four extensive books devoted to these men, but found many new realities in the exclusive theme of leadership. 

    The book begins by exploring how each President entered public life. All took very different paths and their stories include confusion, hope, failure, and fear. They each had fierce ambition and an inordinate drive to succeed. Each exhibited powerful perseverance and hard work, enhancing and developing the qualities they were given. 

    Dramatic reversals and tragedies shattered the private and public lives of each man. At age 32, Lincoln had a severe blow to his public reputation and his private sense of honor as his progressive infrastructure projects failed in the Illinois Legislature and his engagement to Mary Todd was called off. The resulting deep depression affected him the rest of his life. At 26, when a New York Assemblyman, Theodore Roosevelt lost his young wife and his mother on the same day. In 1921, Franklin Roosevelt was struck by polio and left permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Johnson lost the Senate race in 1941 and saw it as a rejection by the people, and later he suffered a massive heart attack which repurposed his life. These events and how each put himself back together molded his leadership. 

    Each man, in very different ways, made his way to The White House. Lincoln entered when the nation was in the gravest moment of dissolution in American history. FDR faced the question of the survival of the American economy and viability of the democracy itself. While neither Theodore Roosevelt nor Lyndon Johnson faced such immediate difficulties, both became President following the assassination of his predecessor. Amazing, the leadership style and skills of each of the four fit the historical moment almost perfectly. 

    There was no single path for these four Presidents. Each one was looking beyond his own life and wanted to be sure his achievements shaped and enlarged the future of America. The recognition that each one sought bears little resemblance to today’s culture of celebrity. They cared about an enduring place in communal history. Lincoln and FDR died in office. Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919 while working on his dream of returning to the Presidency. Johnson died four years after retiring from office, but in his final public statement returned to his greatest contribution, the civil rights legislation that only he could have gotten passed. At the Civil Rights Symposium at the LBJ Center on December 12, 1972, he said that he had come to believe “that the essence of government” lay in ensuring “the dignity and innate integrity of life for every individual – regardless of color, creed, ancestry, sex, or age.” He continued “We have not done nearly enough” and then concluded with “If our will is strong, and if our hearts are right, and if courage remains our constant companion, then my fellow Americans, I am confident, we shall overcome.” 

    Each of these Presidents was linked to the people. Each listened well and communicated with the American people in every way possible. These four men form a family tree. The lineage of leadership spans the entirety of our country’s history. They set a standard for all of us. As Abraham Lincoln said “With public sentiment, nothing can fail, without it nothing can succeed.” 

    While it was said long ago, this is a statement we should all remember. It is the foundation on which America is built. 

    NOTE: I have in many cases quoted directly from the text of the book without specifically noting those words.

    Thursday, December 20, 2018

    Ill Prepared for the Coming Debate

    By Evan D. Robertson, , Senior Project Associate

    It’s the end of the year, a time that welcomes the simultaneous mix of reflection and looking ahead. What a year it has been for economic development. And what a year it will be for the field in 2019. Perhaps the most pivotal event this year was the Amazon HQ2 process. From the get go the process was tailor made to attract attention and generate hype among politicians and economic development stakeholders throughout North America. An unintended consequence of this was great public debate. Where most economic development projects undergo little scrutiny by the general public, the HQ2 process brought economic development incentives into the fore. With school systems and transit struggling to keep pace with growth, many rightly question whether Washington or New York can afford rather sizeable foregone tax income to support a project which almost certainly will place even more stress on public assets that so desperately need revenue.

    It is fortuitous then that 2018 also coincided with local governments’ wider spread adoption of the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) Statement 77 – a policy that provides guidelines for local government tax abatement disclosures. Increased tax abatement visibility among constituency groups combined with newly released data on their local impact could culminate into a disastrous backlash as the public overreacts (as we tend to do in a social media driven world). For decades tax abatements have gotten a free pass largely because no one measured the long-term impacts of foregone revenue. Next year could be when that free pass vanishes. A minimum community and economic development professionals must be prepared to answer critical questions about past, current, and future returns on investment from tax abatement and incentives. Leadership and stakeholders should also prepare for greater public involvement in their provisioning.

    Tax abatements and foregone revenue strike at the very heart of things that political constituents care about locally: schools, transportation infrastructure, park and recreation amenities, and millage rates. These are not tax revenues that have already been set aside for an economic development purpose. When things don’t work (i.e. stagnant teacher pay, crumbling infrastructure, low test scores), these abatements could become a scapegoat. In December of 2018 Good Jobs First gave a glimpse of the coming pushback. According to the study, schools in 28 states lost an estimated $1.8 billion in the last fiscal year.[1] Good Jobs First is certainly transparent in their intentions – the report estimated that the ten most impacted states could hire almost 28,000 teachers at each state’s average teacher salary.[2] Combined with ongoing teacher strikes, low test performance, and trailing per pupil spending in some states, abatement data strike at a sensitive nerve.

    As Statement 77 data undergoes further scrutiny, we as community and economic development professionals must come to terms with the fact that the profession has historically done a poor job measuring, tracking, and communicating foregone tax revenue and its impact on future community objectives. Given our charge, it is understandable. At the front-lines of economic prosperity, future tax rolls are often sacrificed for immediate job creation. At the same time, the shortcoming of the data to public discourse is that it makes no estimation for what a local government’s tax revenue would be without the job creation induced by the abatement or incentive. School systems in the Good Jobs First study might be short $1.8 billion, but they also might be short more than that if abatement supported employees living in those districts were elsewhere.

    Community and economic development is soon entering a new climate after much needed change. In a data driven world, optimization is the soup-du-jour. Much talked about artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are, at their core, tools to optimize process and decisions – these tools find the most efficient path to make a delivery, discover the most appropriate price to pay for a stock, or estimate how much a customer is willing to pay for a plane ticket among other problems. With greater insight on tax abatement data and outcome metrics (job creation, wages, etc.), Statement 77 might just give community and economic development professionals an opportunity to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

    Over the long-term, tax abatement data will prove to be a vital piece of information that affords the profession an opportunity to optimize the provision of economic development incentives. Once all local governments around the country report abatement and incentive data, we as a profession can answer a critical question that has plagued us for so long: how much does my community need to give up to sway this company? At the end of the day, this is an optimization problem and one, in the absence of data that has historically been solved at the other end of the table. While Statement 77 will undoubtedly give professionals a short-term headache, it may also bring greater balance to the site selection process – particularly during negotiations. Preparing to listen to constituents, address their concerns, and show economic development metrics that prove ROI – for residents rather than investors – might be good preparation for 2019.

    [1] Good Jobs First. “The New Math on School Finance: Adding Up the First-Ever Disclosure of Corporate Tax Abatements’ Cost to Public Education.” Good Jobs First. December 2018.
    [2] Ibid

    Thursday, November 15, 2018

    HQ2, Brute?

    By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President

    I know it’s probably as exciting as a turkey sandwich the day after Thanksgiving, but I have to write about Amazon. I mean, it’s the only economic development project that’s ever penetrated the national zeitgeist! After 15+ years of consulting on economic strategic plans, my family finally understands what I do for a living. “Oh, like that Amazon thing?” So, yeah, I feel compelled to give my 2 cents on what some have called the “project of the century.”

    Whether Amazon’s announcement proves that “spiky” talent hubs will Hoover up the lion’s share of future tech jobs like the New Geography of Jobs’ Enrico Moretti would argue, masks the trend of Silicon Valley behemoths increasingly investing in large regional headquarters outside of California as Richard Florida notes, or, per Conor Sen, opens up new opportunities for lower-cost metros, the long-term effect of the Battle for Bezos will be an evolving discussion.

    As Caesar lamented the betrayal of his erstwhile friend and protégé, many regions must feel like Team Bezos has stabbed them in the back. After a massively public RFP garnered 238 responses, a host of ridiculous-in-retrospect publicity stunts, and dizzying incentives packages, 18 of the 20 finalists learned officially on Tuesday – to butcher Soup Nazi – “No HQ2 for you!”

    As many have reported, Amazon is essentially ramping up hiring and investment at its two biggest East Coast employment hubs, New York City and Northern Virginia – albeit $2 billion richer for their effort. Potentially to demonstrate that it wasn’t a fait accompli, Amazon also announced 5,000 new jobs in a Nashville operations center. No small potatoes but likely scant comfort to regions wondering if aspiring to “Amazon headquarters” status will ever be a realistic ambition.

    Lots of soul searching probably going on in economic development circles right now, and that’s probably not a bad thing. “What do we want to be?” is always the most important question to inform strategic investment. My perspective is that being an incredible Indianapolis is better than being a poor man’s Boston. Fight in your weight class, but train harder than everyone else. HQ2’s legacy reinforcing the primacy of talent, mobility, access, quality of place, regional collaboration, and business climate to compete in the technology economy is likely the most important outcome of this whole HQ2-ring circus. (Okay, I’ll stop with the puns.)

    The fact that HQ2 is actually HQ1+1=2 was truly a surprise, mostly because the company’s rhetoric had always been an independent, equal headquarters to complement its home base in Seattle. Who knows if the feeding frenzy of proposals would have been as intense if Amazon had more strongly hinted that a split second headquarters was a real possibility. Of course, my belief is that the two-HQ2 contingency became a more logical internal option as anti-Amazon rhetoric began to intensify over the 14-month process. Even the diminished impact of “only” 25,000 jobs on the two selected sites has been a field day for critics.

    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congressmember-Elect from New York District 14 (which includes Bronx and Queens), tweeted this to her followers:

    Writing in Citylab, Derek Thompson from The Atlantic not only called HQ2 “shameful,” but argued that Amazonian incentives themselves should be “illegal.

    At the very least, a global spotlight has been shone on the economic development machinations of prospect attraction. What that will mean for the future of mega-incentives deals is anyone’s guess. Truth be told, the industry has been moving away from an attraction-centric model for years now as prospect and project flow has declined and the importance of talent has skyrocketed in the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Talent was clearly Amazon’s most important selection criterion.

    Rather than throwing the incentives baby out with the strategic bathwater, the tool should be integrated into a truly holistic growth plan that maximizes a community’s competitive position for companies and talent. This is tricky stuff which, as I can now explain to my family at Thanksgiving with fewer blank stares, is why I still have a job.

    Thursday, October 4, 2018

    Immigration Reality

    By J. Mac Holladay, CCE, PCED, LM, HLM

    There is probably no issue which has been the victim of more disinformation and a lack of factual reflection than America’s need for immigrant talent at all levels. What I am seeking to do in this brief white paper is to set the record straight. There is no political or partisan agenda here, simply a hard look at the issue from an economic and community development perspective.

    I am approaching the issue related only to legal immigrants and refugees and policies related to their presence in the United States now and in the future. Everywhere Market Street goes to work with businesses and organizations to try and create an enhanced economic future, the number one issue is the quality and availability of the workforce.

    Let’s start with some basic facts. Please understand that almost all of these data points have multiple sources, and I have noted at least one in every case. Market Street is not presenting original research in this report. I am glad to provide direct links to all the resource documents if asked.

    - The Census Bureau tells us there are about 34.2 million working age immigrants (ages 25-64) in the country. The Kaufman Foundation reports that they are TWICE as likely as the native born population to start a new business. As of March 2016, the National Foundation for American Policy brief shows that foreign born entrepreneurs are estimated to be behind 51 percent of our country’s billion dollar startups.

    - The Partnership for a New American Economy (made up of more than 500 Mayors and business leaders from both parties and independents) reported in 2016 that there are just under 3 million immigrants who are self-employed. California leads the way with 785,000. Florida and Texas follow with 338,000 and 336,000. More than half the states have over 10,000 foreign born entrepreneurs. Georgia has 75,000, Virginia 67,000, and North Carolina 50,000. In 2014, that meant $1.5 billion to the Georgia economy and $1.8 billion in Virginia. Florida was over $5.1 billion and Texas $7.9 billion.

    - The Kiplinger Letter reported in May 2018 that the American workforce is aging rapidly with 20 percent of the entire population expected to be over 65 by 2030 - 50,000 are turning 65 each day. Compounding those numbers is a huge drop in the labor force participation rate. That number has dropped from 67.1 percent in 2000 to 62.8 percent in 2016. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that it will fall further to 61 percent by 2026.

    - H-2B Visas have been a tool for foreign guest workers for decades. The law caps the number of these visas at 66,000 divided between summer and winter. The Congress gave the Administration permission to issue an additional 69,000 visas this summer. As reported by the Wall Street Journal and others, The Department of Homeland Security Administration agreed to issue only 15,000 more. These workers are vital to both seasonal agriculture and service industries.

    - HB-1 Visas are issued for highly skilled workers. It is capped at 85,000 workers per year and has been exhausted in the first week each year since 2014. In 2015, there were 233,000 applications in the first seven days. The National Foundation for American Policy reports that the number of denials of H-1B visas increased 41 percent in the fourth quarter from the previous quarter in this fiscal year.

    - Refugees represent another source of workers for America. In 2016, the annual rate of accepting approved and vetted refugees (normally a two year process) was 110,000 annually. The current Administration reduced the number by Executive Order to 45,000 in 2018. The State Department and the Migration Policy Institute reported in May that only 13,501 refugees were admitted in the first seven and a half months of this fiscal year and that the backlog of applications and security checks is at an all-time high.

    - Last month the Labor Department reported that for the first time since record keeping began in 2000 the number of job openings in the U.S. exceeded the number of job seekers. There was a 400,000 person difference in the two data points. The U.S. is facing a historically tight labor market, but a greater share of workers than 18 years ago say they are stuck in part-time jobs. While wages have been slowly rising, up 2.8 percent from a year ago, that percentage is still short of the 3.9 percent rise in 2008-2009 and is barely keeping up with inflation.  The Wall Street Journal reported on June 6 that as of April, business services (from accountants to clerical workers) led the way with 1.3 million openings followed by hotels at 844,000 and food service at 735,000 openings.

    - The Business Roundtable (made up of top level CEOs) recently delivered a jointly signed letter to the head of Homeland Security expressing its “serious concern” over the Administration’s immigration changes. The letter stated that “arbitrary and inconsistent” guidelines have created new and unnecessary hurdles for skilled foreigners working in the U.S. The increase in HB-1 visa petition denials related to renewals was highlighted. The CEOs stated that “companies do not know whether a work visa petition that was approved last month will be approved when the company submits an identical application to extend the employee’s status.”  They also expressed particular concern that the immigration service was expected to revoke work eligibility for the spouses of HB-1 visa holders. Additionally, since many spouses also have highly sought after skill sets and have built careers here in the U.S., as the Wall Street Journal noted on August 14,  if their work authorization is revoked, they will both take their skills elsewhere in the world.

    - One final point on the facts. In September, Citicorp and Oxford University issued a report that stated that two thirds of the U.S. GDP expansion since 2011 was “directly attributable to migration.” Immigrants have founded 40 percent of the Fortune 500 even though they make up only 14 percent of the population. Immigrants are also twice as likely to create a patented invention or win a Nobel Prize.

    In 2006, the U.S. Senate passed The Comprehensive Immigration Act with a bi-partisan vote of 62-36. The House never took up the bill. Again in 2013, after months of meetings by the “Gang of Eight” headed by Senators McCain, Menendez, and Rubio, the Senate passed a far more comprehensive bill by a 68 -32 vote on June 27, 2013. This bill included increased border security, increased screening for green card applicants, a mandatory workforce verification program, a new visa program for lower skilled workers, moving the entire system toward work skills not family based, and finally a 13 year pathway for illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship or be forced to leave. The support for the bill included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and all the major labor unions. Almost immediately, House Speaker John Boehner said that the Republican House would not take up the bill. They never did, nor did they pass any alternative legislation.

    In late 2016, Mike Randle, publisher of Southern Business and Development Magazine, wrote a thoughtful piece titled “The Future of Our Workforce.” Randle outlined that the demographic changes and reality of the labor force participation rate in painting a bleak picture for the U.S. to compete long term, noting that only about 70,000 people a month are joining the workforce. Randle pointed out, using a report from Forbes, that Mexico and China can “backfill labor” much more easily that the US can. He stated “Again, the only way to grow the workforce in dramatic fashion is to grow legal permanent immigrant resident’s population.” We are clearly seeing his prediction come true as so many jobs remain unfilled month after month.

    It has now been over five years since anything has even been seriously considered to fix a clearly broken system. The distance between the two points of view is wider than ever, and several important players, particularly Senator John McCain, are no longer on the scene.

    How long can this badly needed policy change be ignored? When will the Congress step up and do its job? How much more proof is needed to show that we must do something for the American economy to continue to grow?

    No other issue threatens the American economy like this one. It is of grave importance to the health and welfare of our nation. 

    Tuesday, August 28, 2018

    Inspiring Altruism

    By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant

    In May, Bruce Stiftel, a former professor of mine in Georgia Tech’s City and Regional Planning department, wrote a message for new urban planners in the form of a blog post for Planetizen. The message was about altruism: about the importance of altruism in producing public goods and about how we, as urban planners, can convince people to act altruistically. 

    The question of how to get a diverse group of community stakeholders to put aside their NIMBY-ism and their own self-interest in order to come together to make their community a better place is one shared by pretty much everyone in professional economic development. Stiftel answers the question by saying that through our designs, which show what is possible for a community, and through our analyses, which show trends that should be avoided and ways to bring about a better future, we can show how common goals can raise the community up. 

    He is absolutely right that altruism is extremely important in the production of public goods. But, I found his answer lacking. Convincing people to act altruistically is no easy task. Design boards and reams of data analysis aren’t often all that persuasive. 

    The question, though, is a good one. And, it has been knocking around in my brain for the past few months, where it has been bumping up against all sorts of other things. I read a book last year that argued that empathy is endangered and a couple of articles (here and here) that talked about reasons why we should still study the “useless” humanities in the STEM age (spoiler: they help develop empathy and an appreciation for people outside yourself). 

    The motivation for acting altruistically usually comes from empathetic concern and appreciation for others. And, no matter how good your design boards or your data analysis, you can’t convince people to have empathy. It’s not the sort of thing you can be argued into with reasons; it’s a capacity that has to be developed. 

    When I read this article in The Atlantic last week that talks about how students are abandoning the humanities in record numbers because they think STEM majors will improve their chances on the job market, all of these things that had been bumping up against each other in my brain came together into a question of my own. 

    Have we shot ourselves in the foot with all of our emphasis on STEM? Have we, by pushing the importance of STEM education, sent the message that other disciplines—especially the humane ones—aren’t important? And, have we, thereby, inadvertently made our own jobs, which require us to inspire people to call upon their capacity for empathy and act altruistically in order to make their communities better places, harder?

    Thursday, April 19, 2018

    Community Attachment: What I Learned at Free Movie Night

    By Matt Tarleton, Executive Vice President

    "Feed me. Feeeeeed me! FEED ME, SEYMOUR!”

    That was all I could think this past Friday night as I sat in the parking lot of Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points, Atlanta watching Little Shop of Horrors for the first time in my life. I was surrounded by about 150 of my neighbors – some I recognized or knew, many I did not – all there to support a neighborhood beautification initiative (Little Five Alive) but primarily to watch this 1986 musical about a carnivorous plant and its pursuit of world domination.

    On our walk home, my thoughts started to shift from this cinematic masterpiece to what I had just experienced. That single event – a musical projected on an inflatable screen in a parking lot – so perfectly encapsulated an important lesson related to community attachment.

    Earlier this decade, the Knight Foundation and Gallup conducted a survey of more than 14,000 Americans across 26 cities to determine what influences community attachment; what makes a place “sticky.” We cite this piece of research, the Soul of the Community report, quite often at Market Street because it has such important implications for talent retention today. Communities that are characterized by high rates of resident attachment are inherently more successful at talent retention; those residents that fall in love with their community and grow attached to it are more likely to stay, and more likely to become evangelists of and for the community.

    Through their extensive surveying, the Knight Foundation and Gallup found that three factors principally influence community attachment: social offerings, aesthetics, and openness. They found that these three factors are more important to community attachment than many other attributes that we often consider to be highly influential of residential location decisions. Simply put, people are highly attached to places that are fun (provide ample social offerings), that are beautiful and attractive (invest in aesthetics), and that are inviting and welcoming to all (openness to people from diverse backgrounds).

    These attributes, and the attachment that they beget, are often best exemplified at a hyperlocal level. Think about your community and the places in which you have pride. Resident attachment and pride in place often increases as geography becomes more narrowly defined. One may be prideful in their home state, but even more prideful in their home town. Within their home town, many are particularly attached to or prideful in their neighborhood, and at even more granular level. We often identify with neighborhoods, and even streets. Very simply, we are more heavily attached to the environment that immediately surrounds us – our neighborhood – and inherently less attached to those parts of a community or region in which we do not reside or which we visit infrequently. We naturally care more that our street is clean and beautiful than if a street on the other side of town is clean and beautiful.

    It’s easy to forget this when developing strategies that seek to enhance community attachment in support of talent attraction and retention. The three factors mentioned above – social offerings, aesthetics, and openness – are often most heavily experienced and influenced at the hyperlocal level. A free screening of Little Shop of Horrors that was open to all and hosted by a neighborhood organization focused on beautification perfectly captured this. And in that moment as I was walking home from the movie, I started to think of all the other examples of how my attachment to this city has been heavily influenced by what transpires in my neighborhood, at this hyperlocal level.

    The regular plantings organized by Trees Atlanta’s Neighborwoods program, the seedling exchange run by the League of Urban Gardeners, the park clean-ups and landscaping days hosted by the Candler Park Neighborhood Organization, and the individual investment made by individual homeowners in beautifying our neighborhood all contribute to the aesthetic that I consume and enjoy on a daily basis.

    The free movie nights, the Halloween Block Party on Page Avenue, the porchfests, the Fall Fest, and various other informal and formal social offerings throughout the year in the neighborhood all contribute to, and increasingly define, my social life as a 35 year old in Atlanta. These events also bring our neighborhood and community together. They illustrate the diversity of our community; diversity and openness that I am proud of, exemplified by the many yard signs reading “Refugees Welcome” and “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in multiple languages.

    So it’s no surprise that when I talk to my friends and family about Atlanta and what I love, so much of what I talk about is at the neighborhood-level. And by and large, the many initiatives and offerings that I referenced above in my neighborhood are led entirely by volunteers and residents. When we talk about quality of life and quality of place in the communities that we assist, so often the conversation gravitates towards the next big project or amenity. These projects and investments are necessary, but they aren’t the be-all, end-all of placemaking and resident attachment. Too often we forget that many of our most impactful initiatives with respect to resident attachment are low-cost, volunteer-led, and hyper-local. And too often we belittle or trivialize factors like social offerings and aesthetics in our conversations about community competitiveness; it is easy to do so when faced with challenges like child poverty, dropouts, and job losses. But in a world where conversations about community competitiveness increasingly center upon a community’s ability to cultivate attachment and retain its resident workforce, we can’t ignore these factors and their undeniable influence.