Local View: Economic Developers ‘Lost in the Jungle’ Without Support

From the column: “Though there will be sporadic wins and individual high achievers, long-term success requires a more comprehensive system that doesn’t need heroic efforts.”

Opinion by Karl Schuettler

This article was originally published in the Duluth News Tribune on September 15, 2023. You can view the column here.

Now more than ever, regional cooperation is the most fundamental building block for successful economic development. Nowhere is this more true than in rural areas, where professionals are often working jobs with multiple overlapping functions and feel near-constant whiplash. They lurch from grant administration to a child care meeting to a new developer’s concept to the latest hot-button political issue eating up the mayor and city council, always putting out fires but rarely in control of the narrative. No number of project-management tools and little life hacks can cope with the incredible complexity of the challenges these professionals face.

Now more than ever, economic developers need an economic-development ecosystem that embeds them in a supportive network of partnerships necessary to confront those great challenges.

Ecosystem thinking acknowledges complexity. It provides a lens to make sense of the deluge of information in a media-saturated era and provides a regional scale large enough to provide reasonable resources but small enough to retain a human touch.

In many places, a loose framework for cooperation exists: There are mandated regional plans and foundations that think across boundaries, and state and federal resources flow downward in ways that are starting to recognize the advantages of scale. Robust ecosystem thinking provides the resources to review the existing assets, strengthen informal connections, build cross-sector strategies, and make sure plans do not remain on a shelf.

Some of the greatest benefits of an ecosystem are most apparent when everything goes wrong. The response to COVID-19 was eye-opening in its demonstration of how economic developers can respond quickly to a crisis. And while there were occasional mistakes, the scale of this mobilization and its success in preventing a long-term economic crisis is an underappreciated triumph of collective action.

A more telling sign of an ecosystem’s strength, however, is how it reacts to a more localized crisis, one that means little for most of the community but everything for some of its most vulnerable members.

As a private nonprofit, Northspan has long worked to serve as an incubator for regional programming in Northeastern Minnesota. This summer, we assumed management of Northeastern Minnesota’s Launch Minnesota affiliate, which we rebranded as DAWN, or Driving Access to Wealth and Networks. While we aim to build on the strong foundations set by the Itasca Economic Development Corporation in its time managing the program, we envision an effort that collaborates with all our regional business-support organizations to help all entrepreneurs who need assistance, no matter the stage of their business.

We’ve spent countless hours completing behind-the-scenes groundwork with regional organizations such as the Entrepreneur Fund, Small Business Development Center, and LISC Duluth to map out a new ecosystem. This effort will adopt the Kauffman Foundation’s framework to create clear tracks for entrepreneurs through every stage of support they need.

This August, Northspan received $2 million over four years from the Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency to support a two-track approach for capacity-building, access to capital, and access to networks for underserved populations in Northeastern Minnesota.

Only with a functioning ecosystem can the economic developer’s region build a collective identity that can turn around bleak narratives about small-town America and put it on more competitive footing with economic-development infrastructure in major metropolitan areas. Without an ecosystem, economic developers are lost in the jungle, and though there will be sporadic wins and individual high achievers, long-term success requires a more comprehensive system that doesn’t need heroic efforts to score meaningful victories.

With the right framing for a broader effort, the pieces for sustained growth are right in front of us.

Karl Schuettler is vice president at Northspan, a nonprofit community and economic development consulting firm based in Duluth. This commentary was adapted from a white paper, “Ecosystem Thinking: The Path to Survival in the Economic Development Jungle,” published by Northspan in coordination with this commentary.