William Fulton is the Mayor of Ventura, California, and a principal in the planning consulting firm of Design, Community & Environment (www.dceplanning.com). The following is excerpted from his new book, Romancing The Smokestack: How Cities And States Pursue Prosperity:
Twenty-five years ago, when I first started writing about economic development, the governors of seven states went on The Phil Donahue Show — the premiere daytime talk show of its time — begging General Motors to build the assembly plant for its brand-new Saturn brand in their state.
It was, to put it bluntly, a pretty pathetic excuse for an economic development campaign. Even though auto assembly plants don’t literally have smokestacks, this was a pretty stark example of politicians trying to find a short-cut to economic success through the standard technique of “romancing the smokestack” — wooing some out-of-town business in hopes that they will come to town. I always counted the Donahue show as the lowest point in the history of American economic development — especially since none of the seven states got the plant.
At least the Donahue show seemed like the low point until earlier this year, when Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland made a YouTube music video begging basketball star LeBron James to re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The YouTube music video managed to trivialize both the economic development goal and the means by which that goal is pursued. Somehow a talk show seems almost statesmanlike compared to a music video. And have we sunk so low that the holy grail of economic development is not an auto assembly plant but an individual basketball player? Not that it much mattered. In the end, making a music video didn’t work any better than going on a talk show. The Saturn plan went to Tennessee — at least until GM killed the brand last year — and LeBron went to Florida.
If the humorous failures listed above teach us anything, it is this: There is no magic bullet for prosperity. You can’t just romance the smokestack and hope to succeed, especially in the long run. But there are ways to maximize the chances of enduring success.
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