The longtime mantra of realtors, “location, location, location,” applies just as much to a community’s overall economic development, experts agreed during the Maryland Economic Development Association’s fall conference.
The conference, held Tuesday in Frederick and sponsored by the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, made the case for “place making” as a tool for improving the social perceptions of a region’s assets.
So, how does that elusive sense of place impact economic development? Here are 10 takeaways from the conference’s expert lineup.
- A community’s appearance plays a major role in attracting high-earning residents. Keynote speaker Ed McMahon, a senior fellow for Sustainable Development at the Urban Land Institute, said, “Every single day in America, people make decisions about where to live, where to work, where to retire, based almost entirely on what communities look like.”
- McMahon emphasized that a community’s sustainability applies to most beautification and historic preservation projects, not just environmental initiatives. “A sustainable community is a community with enduring value,” he said.
- A community’s uniqueness fuels growth because “the more your community looks like everyone else’s, the less people will want to go there … If every place looked like every other place, there would be no reason to go anywhere,” McMahon said.
- More companies are moving from the suburbs back to downtown areas and the desire to live near one’s work without having to drive is greater than ever. Investment must respond to that change. “If you don’t have a healthy downtown, you simply don’t have a healthy town,” McMahon said.
- Public buildings and educational institutions should set the standard for a community’s place personality. “Why would anyone invest in a city that doesn’t want to invest in itself?” McMahon asked.
- According to Jason Duckworth, president of Arcadia Land Company, in order to be successful, new development must respond to changing demographics. “The bread and butter of suburban development—the mom, dad and a couple of kids—now only includes only 20 percent of the American public … Because of changing attitudes, we’re likely to see less growth in single-family home suburbs and more growth in townhomes and duplexes and apartments,” he said.
- New development must also respond to changing attitudes about transportation, as a growing number of millennials are opting out of car ownership. Duckworth said that empty, needless parking lots detract from a positive sense of place and can stifle economic development.
- An area’s overall positive perception of itself leads to more visitors, who tend to spend money on things like food and lodging without adding stress to the larger infrastructure, said Ben Muldrow, a partner at Arnett Muldrow & Associates.
- Every resident is an ambassador for the community. “You have to remind your own friends and neighbors that the place they live in is great, because if tourists come and the first person they talk to say it’s terrible, you’re in bad shape … You have to remember that your community message is often first delivered to visitors by minimum wage workers at gas stations and fast food places,” Muldrow said.
- Investing in historic preservation yields lasting long-term results in fostering place, but it needs to follow a long-term plan. “Stick to it, we’ve grown the way we have because we made a plan 20 years ago and have stuck with it,” said Michael Day, Director of Economic and Community Development for the Town of Berlin.
- Place making initiatives, including farmers markets and flea markets, should grow out of natural gathering places, according to Kimberly Clark, Executive Vice President of the Baltimore Development Corporation. “It’s about figuring out where people want to be. People generally want to be with other people.
- Organizations should be unified in their visions for the community, in order to keep the place consistently positive. “Have a unified group maintaining marketing and branding, and from there, build public private partnerships,” said Jeff Burton, Deputy Director of the Bethesda Urban Partnership.
- If you’re looking to transition the community from a tourism destination to a place to call home, focus on attracting “head of household” quality jobs, which will support active families, according to Michael Koch, Director of the Garrett County Department of Economic Development.