The State of California has ignited significant interest in regional economic development through its Community Economic Resilience Fund (CERF) program, a $600 million initiative supporting innovative plans and strategies to diversify local economies and develop sustainable industries. State leaders recently announced the first round of CERF awards and identified 11 entities selected for funding, with two more yet to be named.

Six of the 11 regional entities chosen are being spearheaded by members of the California Association for Local Economic Development (CALED), California’s premier economic development association and one of the largest economic development associations in the nation. These CALED members are acting as conveners and/or fiscal agents for the CERF collaboratives in the regions of the Central Coast, Los Angeles County, North State, Northern San Joaquin Valley, Orange County, and the Redwood Coast.

“We’re pleased to see these experienced economic development organizations engaged in CERF,” said Gurbax Sahota, President and CEO of CALED. “Economic development professionals are essential drivers of economic recovery and resiliency. Not only do they inform leaders on policies and practices that deliver positive economic development outcomes for a community’s people and places, but they also implement those policies and programs and act as government’s direct liaison with the businesses in their jurisdictions.”

Turning Talking Points into Actionable Solutions

Economic development is the creation of wealth from which community benefits are realized. It is an investment in growing the economy that creates economic opportunity for residents while increasing revenues for jurisdictions so they can provide services, amenities, and a desirable quality of life for their residents — all in a way that aligns with the community’s vision and values.

Because economic development is political and impactful, there are many ideas (some based on fact and others based on subjective opinions) about what economic development is or could be for specific communities. These talking points are not always connected to strengths, weaknesses, challenges, or opportunities in a community or even the community culture. As local governments and economic developers across California already know, connecting residents and their ideas about a preferred future requires broad outreach and collaboration to form a vision and a strategic plan, actionable tasks, and clear metrics for success. It also requires using data to fully understand your community’s competitive advantages and disadvantages so you can make strategic, informed decisions based in reality — not rhetoric.

Inclusion in the Planning Process

Digging deeper into the work, economic development strategic planning requires thoughtful outreach methodologies to involve a variety of residents and business owners — as well as organizations that represent these constituents — in articulating a vision of what they want their community to be. Because we have a diverse state, economic development goals may vary significantly by region and even within a region. It’s imperative that strategic plan conveners remain neutral and unbiased in gathering, understanding, and relaying these perspectives so that residents’ voices can be heard and truly acknowledged.

Inclusion is central to the planning process and engaging the community. To fully define a vision for the future, it is crucially important to invite the participation of all community members and give them a voice in the process, and reinforcing equity should be a top priority. Leaders in this work know that it is not enough to hold meetings — you must find ways to meet people where they are to make sure their needs are included.

The foundation of an inclusive planning process must include clear, current, defensible data and an analysis of the population’s composition: the proportion of low-income, disadvantaged, or vulnerable families and individuals; percentage of immigrants; educational, cultural, and ethnic characteristics; workforce skills; and much more. It’s critical to understand the community’s demographics so that customized outreach efforts can be used to invite and encourage broad participation, with effective outreach that taps into the numerous grassroots organizations and community-based groups serving residents who have diverse interests, languages, cultures, and faiths.

Deliberate, intentional strategic planning also embraces inclusion and equity by asking participants in the community engagement process to answer questions that specifically address equity-related economic development issues. Examples of such questions include: What types of workforce training programs might best serve our disadvantaged residents? How can our community encourage more local ownership, avoid displacement, and improve equity? What sorts of employment opportunities would we like to see available to our young people? What is needed to address cultural and ethnic diversity and achieve equity varies from one community to the next, and a one-size-fits-all approach is neither practical nor appropriate.

Using these outreach strategies, economic developers work with residents, businesses, community-based organizations, public sector leaders, and others to create a comprehensive vision for the future. This vision is grounded in community-specific data to inform well-defined, detailed changes that are needed, assets that can be brought to bear, and challenges that must be overcome to create a better quality of life and economic opportunity for all.

Moving the Needle

Achieving measurable change depends on having a clear understanding of the community’s current status and the metrics that define what to strive for in pursuing a preferred future.

The promise of economic development is rooted in the hope of a better future for all. Including economic development professionals in the CERF regions’ activities is critical because they are a driving force behind developing and implementing strategies to make that future possible.

“We commend the teams at the California Labor Agency, Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, and Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development for launching the CERF program,” said Sahota. “As this effort to support sustainable, inclusive economic development moves ahead throughout California, professional economic developers offer an array of best practices, tools, and resources for this important work, and we are glad to see several of these professionals included as CERF regional conveners/fiscal agents.”

For tips on how to use this intentional approach to go from discussing concepts to creating resilient economies, check out CALED’s Economic Development Recovery and Resiliency Playbook, available free at https://caled.org/economic-development-recovery.