Over the past few years, the raging debate in economic development has been over whether cities should be cool or uncool. Should cities pursue “the creative economy” by going after arts, culture, creative research & development, and innovation? Or should they focus on the bread-and-butter economy: hard infrastructure, traditional industries like manufacturing, and blue-collar jobs?
Usually a raging debate is an indication that the wrong question is being asked, and that’s the case here. The question is not whether cities must be cool or uncool in order to prosper. Clearly, there are some cities in each camp that prosper, and some cities in each camp that do not. The question is deeper: In both cool and uncool cities, what is the underlying nature of the economy? Does the city simply import money from other places, or does it export goods and services to other places? Because it is this distinction – not cool or uncool – that serves as the dividing line between prosperity that is real and prosperity that is illusory.
Not long ago, I was interviewing a retired politician in a fast-growing Southern metropolis. Even though he was a good ol’ boy who had never left home, he bore no resentment for the retired Yankees who flooded his town. In fact, he attributed the whole area’s prosperity to them. A retirement community, he said, “is like a high-wage factory. You build 1,000 houses, you have 1,000 households making $90,000 a year. A high-wage factory without the factory.”
I grew up in a factory town, and this got me thinking about a factory’s huge and multi-faceted contribution to a region’s economy. But is a retirement community really similar?
In some ways the answer is yes — and that’s a good thing. The most obvious similarity, as my politician friend pointed out, is that the residents live in town, get steady paychecks to spend locally, and become involved in local life. Like factory workers, retirees can support a whole service economy with their local spending.
But there’s more to a factory-town economy than simply Saturday grocery shopping by the workers. Factories are in the export business, while retirement communities are in the import business. An export economy spins off all kinds of economic benefits that you don’t get from an import economy. A big factory requires lots of suppliers, and tends to stimulate the creation of an economic cluster — a group of businesses that feed off each other and, in time, find new customers outside the region.
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