The primary focus of economic development across America in recent decades has been the attraction and retention of businesses. Create an office park or industrial district, offer tax and other incentives, and lure companies to the site. Yet for much of America, especially the rural communities in which I have spent much of my life, that approach no longer works. Companies are simply not returning at a sufficient rate.
Fortunately, there is a better way. It takes more time but produces business and job growth organically that is rooted in the assets and resources of the local community and therefore not likely to leave town.
The solution is to create a locally defined environment or ecosystem of entrepreneurship -- a culture and structure that facilitates the flow of ideas, talent and resources to start and grow businesses that relate to a community's specific environment. Perhaps surprisingly, the very same communities that may not be able to attract existing companies provide fertile ground for startups. I've seen it happen repeatedly, and there's proof.
The key is for rural communities to recognize that they have valuable assets, one of which is the very nature of rural life. In an increasingly congested and impersonal world, there is great appeal to a close-knit community. The qualities associated with rural life are particularly conducive to the creation of entrepreneurial ecosystems and the free flow of information, skills and resources.
The challenge is, first, to move away from the old approach, which is so comfortable for many government officials. But that approach takes time, energy and resources away from creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Building such an ecosystem requires assessing local assets and resources, engaging people associated with them, and creating mechanisms for bringing those people and prospective entrepreneurs together, ensuring that the people involved are broadly diverse and building a collaborative vision with energetic buy-in.
While the two approaches to growth could theoretically coexist, and may at some level, most communities have limited resources and must choose one or the other. That choice is crucial but made easier in a digital age, when opportunities to create dynamic local environments exist to a remarkable degree.