Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Big Hot Suburban Blues

By Alex Pearlstein, Vice President

With the recent release of 2014 Census American Community Survey (ACS) estimates, those of us in the economic and demographics biz dove in eagerly, as always, to dissect the data and try to discern broad and finer-grained trends that can help inform our analysis and recommendations. What seems to have captured the fancy of thinkers in the worlds of urban economics, geography, and planning are telltale signs that the “return to the city” movement breathlessly touted by many boosters as evidence that well-heeled, educated residents are sorting into dense urban cores is far outweighed by continuing patterns of suburban and exurban migration characteristic of post-World War II America. These movements are most specifically focused on Sun Belt communities that grew like crazy before the Great Recession and are slowly returning to pre-downturn levels of expansion. 

A recent headline in The Atlantic snarkily captured the presumed takeaway from this new data: “Americans Love Big Hot Suburbs.” The article contends that, “The neighborhoods outside of sunny metro areas are gobbling up the country, just like they were before the Great Recession.” 

I feel like I’ve got some personal perspective on, at the very least, the “big, hot” aspects of these decades-long trends. I grew up in Los Angeles, went to school in San Diego, lived in the Bay Area, got my master’s in Atlanta, and then picked up and moved with my wife to Des Moines, Iowa so she could attend medical school. Our first “real” winter was a beast – the highest three-month snow total in Des Moines’ history. Blizzards, ice storms, days-long stretches of sub-zero hell. Four subsequent winters each had their share of “how can people take this?” moments. Having recently relocated south of Atlanta for my wife’s residency and spending pleasant Februarys in the park with my two-year old, I couldn’t help thinking about my house-bound former neighbors up north. So, bottom line, you can’t blame people for gravitating towards better weather. 

As for “big,” living in my current city (population of roughly 150,000) and struggling to find vegetarian restaurants for the wife, a zoo or children’s museum for the toddler, independent movie theaters, venues with the hottest touring bands, and many other amenities one takes for granted in larger metros, I can also not begrudge people for wanting a more varied supply of “stuff.” Mind you, everyone’s preferences are different, and tons of people prefer the slower lifestyles of a smaller community – don’t care if they can’t find farm-to-table frou frou, artisanal cheese shops, or poetry readings by bearded anarchists with tattoo sleeves. And it also depends on your stage of life; a “night out” in your 20s looks nothing like the equivalent in your 40s with a minivan full of fidgety offspring. 

Regarding “suburbs” – again, a choice. I’m a city guy but I’d be fine and happy if I had to carve out a niche for myself and my family outside the city proper. Big houses are nice, big yards are good, safe streets are preferable, good schools are necessary. 

Professionally, what all the rhetoric of residential and community preference always gets me thinking of is the near-ubiquitous modern trend of talent attraction. It is becoming increasingly, almost universally pervasive for our economic development clients to now attract talent as intentionally as they have always pursued companies. Every community needs smart, talented people – even a region like Austin where people flock by the thousands. In fact, a group of tech execs hopped a plane to Silicon Valley a couple years ago to lure niche talent to the Texas capitalThe plain fact remains that there aren’t enough people (by a long shot) for the jobs we’re creating in this country. The topic is so overwrought that complaining about it is almost passé, but the primacy of talent capacity for economic vibrancy has bubbled to the top of so many regional agendas that talent development – attraction and retention – has become a de facto component of nearly all programmatic toolkits. 

So, back to big, hot, and suburban. What to do if you don’t fit that bill? The answer: be realistic. Cold-weather communities have to acknowledge the odds are slim you’ll lure someone who’s never owned a parka. Smaller places shouldn’t think of mega-cities as hotbeds for potential recruits. Don’t post a video of your bike paths and sidewalk cafes set to a New Wave soundtrack and think it will lead to a stampede of new migrants. 

Frankly, I think the odds of successfully attracting talent are similar to successfully attracting companies – not great, especially compared to growing incumbent firms or holding on to talent that’s already there. That doesn’t mean talent attraction shouldn’t be an investment, just not your largest investment. Target ex-pats, but make no assumptions. People who chose to leave did so for a reason and getting them back will take an even more compelling reason. I wouldn’t return to L.A. for anything less than the job of a lifetime. Think about your own situation. If you happen to live and work in a place that’s not your hometown and someone came up to you and said, “Come back, we need you,” what would your answer be? Probable something along the lines of, “There’s nothing you can say to me my Mother hasn’t already tried.” 

However, if you’ve sowed your oats in some mega-city, met someone, had a kid, and are looking for the same type of environment you grew up in. Well, maybe that erstwhile environment shows up on your geographic radar. Even more so if you can get a mini-mansion for the same amount you’re doling out monthly in rent, and feel good about junior walking to the neighbor’s house without getting mugged. That’s why I personally feel that quality of place matters. I’ve heard it time and again doing public input for strategic processes; an ex-pat who left for “bright lights, big city” will come home and find a downtown slowly transforming, or a riverfront being rediscovered, or the attitudes of elected officials evolving to reflect modern realities, or a new coffee house that wouldn’t be out of place on the streets of Bushwick or Back Bay. They start to picture themselves coming home – start to do the community calculus of birthplace versus current place. Just planting that seed is progress because it has the chance to grow over months and years and maybe take root in hometown soil. Just getting a handful of ex-pats to boomerang back can be the start of a small but growing voice for community change that can bring to bear the wisdom of outside perspective and experience to challenge local parochialism and status-quo stubbornness. 

There will likely be no “cure” for our current talent crisis. Its roots are bigger than one community or one local economy. They are tied to the very nature of the American DNA – most of us came here to work, not to learn. So communities must absolve themselves of the notion that they can fully address skills deficits with a state-of-the-art program or “all-in” declaration of war against an underperforming education system or leaky talent pipeline. But there must be progress, even if incremental, because the alternative is an exodus of jobs to where they can be filled. Even if that location has different faces on its money.

Monday, March 23, 2015

For The Love of Ag

By Katie Thomas, Project Associate

Sharing last week’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations was National Ag Day on March 18th, and while there may not have been any rivers dyed green in its honor, plenty of exciting events were held in communities across the country in honor and support of organizations, companies, and individuals working in agriculture. The Agriculture Council of America started the National Ag Day program in 1973 with the goal of increasing public awareness of agriculture’s vital role in our society. The program encourages every American to understand how food and fiber products are produced, the value agriculture adds to maintaining a strong economy, and to appreciate the role that agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant, affordable products. With the world’s population expected to grow to 9.6 billion people by 2050, and to 401 million in the US, there will be a lot more mouths to feed over the next few decades. 

Here are some fun facts to know about agriculture in the United States. 

· 97% of the 2.1 million farms are family-owned 

· The average size of a farm is approximately 434 acres 

· Over 22 million people are employed in farm or farm-related jobs 

· On average, one farmer supplies food for nearly 150 people 

· 88% of all farms are small family farms 

· The average age of principal operators was 58.3 in 2012. 

· 18% of principal operators on family farms started within the last 10 years 

· In 2013, economic output from agriculture exports was estimated to be $320.3 billion 

· More than 1 million full-time jobs support agriculture’s export-related activities 

· China and Canada imported over $50 billion in U.S. agricultural goods in 2013 

· Every dollar of agricultural exports stimulated another $1.22 in business activity 

Agriculture is a vital part of a community’s local economy and plays a role in multiple business sectors, from agritourism to biotechnology. Employment opportunities related to agriculture also span across occupations and offer dozens of options outside the traditional role of a farmer, whether it’s the agricultural and food scientist doing research and development, the agribusiness professional providing financial assistance, or the mechanic working to ensure the necessary equipment continues to run smoothly. 

So in honor of the day, here’s to you, agriculture. Thank you for the food on our tables, the employment opportunities for our residents, and for the economic benefit you bring to our local communities. 

Note: Facts listed are from the USDA, the Census of Agriculture, and the Ag Council of America.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What IS the value of college?

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant

What IS the value of college? President Obama said yesterday at Georgia Tech, "Today a college degree is a ticket to the middle class and beyond. It’s the key to getting a good job that pays a good income." As economic development professionals, we know that the statistics show he is not wrong. People with college degrees tend to make more money and are less likely to be unemployed. Employers want to hire college graduates. 

Part of what I want to ask here is why? The graduates of traditional liberal arts styled colleges aren’t exactly receiving workforce training. We hear plenty of stories in the economic development world about a workforce full of college graduates, but none with the skills needed to fill good paying jobs that require specialized knowledge. 

Last month we read about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s alleged editing snafu that changed the mission of the University of Wisconsin from language about the pursuit of truth and improving the human condition to language about meeting the state’s workforce needs. 

It got me thinking about this question. As a society, we Americans tend to think college is valuable. But, what is it really about college that we value? 

Walker inflamed education professionals across the nation. Mistaken or not the proposed changes to UW’s mission statement point to changing sentiments across the nation when it comes to the value of our colleges and universities. 

The President said yesterday, "Jobs and businesses will go where the best workers are." If colleges and universities are meant to be preparing those workers, maybe their mission statements should reflect that. The pursuit of truth and improvement of the human condition are admirable goals, but in a post recession reality maybe our ideals have gotten too big for our britches. Or, too big for state-funded public institutions. 

The backlash to the news about Walker, however, suggests that workforce training is, at the very least, not all that we value about college. So, what else is it? 

Do we value the pursuit of truth and the improvement of the human condition? Do we think these lofty goals should be pursued in institutions of higher education and subsidized by state and federal funding? Well, do we? 

As economic development professionals, we recognize that pursuing these lofty goals leads to the research and innovation that make institutions of higher education important economic drivers in our communities—attracting clusters of research and development, commercializing innovations, and spurring entrepreneurial activity. 

Do we value these aspects of our colleges and universities as well? Or, might these lofty goals be better pursued somewhere else? In the private sector? Or, by non-profits outside of the higher education realm?

I’m honestly asking. I have a lot of questions. I don’t have answers. But, given current arguments about state budgets, cuts to state spending on higher education, and proposals that would have professors spending more time in the classroom and less time on research, I think we all need to be asking. 

What do we value in our colleges and universities? What is their value to us as students, parents, employers, employees, economic development professionals, citizens, community members, humans? 

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I have worked in the economic development world since 2009 and I know the value of (and need for) workforce training and development, but I am also a PhD student in philosophy and I care very deeply about pursuing truth and improving the human condition. I also got my BA from a pretty liberal liberal arts institution (Bard College) where those lofty goals were very much a part of my education. 

Liberal arts institutions like mine talk very little about training a workforce and talk much more about teaching students to think for themselves and to ask hard questions. This is a hard question. We should be asking it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Video Games: From Consumer to Creator

By Evan Robertson, Senior Project Associate

Describing the
maker movement as in full bloom is both accurate and premature. Maker spaces have risen throughout the country, from large metro areas like Austin to small cities such as Watertown, SD. The idea behind these spaces is simple, provide tools for creation to a general audience and watch them create. For the most part, the creation occurring in these maker spaces is largely physical. Sure, 3-D printing is greatly assisted by AutoCAD or other computer design programs, but the idea is to turn whatever is produced on the computer into something tangible. To me, the maker space is indicative of a larger trend that is at this point obvious: consumerism is shifting to something more active, something more engaging. This shift is not only impacting the physical goods we buy, but also the digital goods we consume.

For the last three decades, video game creation was an esoteric art. Few possessed both the artistic acumen and technical know-how for combining various artistic fields (music composition, graphic design and animation) and computer programming. Triple A video games of today (a term used much in the same sense as the movie industry: high budget, tons of special effects, high quality) can take years to develop with hundreds of staff leveraging countless skill sets. It presents the same logistical challenges as creating a film, only everything is digital and the audience has an immense impact on how the story unfolds. Game production is at a crossroads –
some even question whether the industry is in decline. Triple A games of today have a habit of overpromising and under delivering, leaving many gamers wondering “haven’t I already played this?” or questioning whether their time is better spent elsewhere.

Indie games have been the game industry’s one bright spot (excluding mobile gaming) as of late. Online marketplaces such as STEAM have provided indie game developers with a large, captive audience. The Indie space has also seen a number of high profile successes. The most notable of which is Minecraft, recently acquired by Microsoft to the tune of $2.5 billion (with a B), is perhaps the indie movement’s greatest success story, so far. As indie games continue to rise, game developers are doing something rather unusual – they are providing their creation tools at low or no cost to the general public. It is akin to Steven Spielberg putting a camera in your hands, giving you access to his special effects department, and telling you to go make a movie.

Epic Games, Inc. kicked things off this week with an announcement that their video game engine, Unreal 4, would be
free to the public – stipulating a five percent royalty for any sales over $3,000. Unity Technologies, a company solely focused on providing indie developers with a user friendly game engine, followed suit announcing that their new Unity Engine 5 is free for personal use, royalty free for sales under $100,000. With these tools available to an increasingly discontented audience, gamers may quickly adopt the maker movement – shifting from content consumers to content creators.

So, what does this all mean for economic development? As we continue to preserve space for makers, those engaged in producing physical products, we must also set aside creation space for those engaged in digital creation – ideally, both should be co-located. Moreover, just as makers need high end CNC equipment; digital makers need high end computers with top of the line graphics cards that may be financially out of their reach. Ensuring access to this equipment as well as collaborative space could spur entrepreneurship activity in the electronic entertainment industry.