If there’s one thing we’ve learned during the COVID crisis, it’s that jobs that we thought had to be done in an office can be done at home. A colleague of mine recently said something very profound: “COVID has forced 10 years of change in the workplace into six months.” A recent article in Area Development, a magazine dedicated to traditional economic development, states that as much as 20% of the workforce may remain working from home, full-time. It’s a simple realization, but with massive implications.
Even prior to COIVD, the economic development industry has seen a large shift in the things prospective businesses are looking for. Traditionally, economic developers were concerned about how to build industrial or office parks and using incentives to help keep and attract businesses. (This is an admitted oversimplification, but still the basic gist of what economic developers largely do.) Industry publications, like Area Development, often do annual surveys of corporate executives or site location professionals. Typically, these lists have items on them like “availability of buildings” and “tax burden.” However, over the last ten years, “Availability of Talent” has risen to a Top 2 item (jockeying every year with logistics issues.) In addition, “Quality of Life” has risen to a Top 4 item. Interestingly enough, Quality of Life wasn’t on the survey at all five years ago. As surveys like these go, the higher something is on the list, the more attention economic developers will pay to it in order to best position their community for growth. As availability of talent became a reoccurring theme, economic development organizations have become more engaged in workforce development. We’re starting to see it more in Quality of Life issues, like creating quality downtowns and communities.
Enter Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi, Texas, by most accounts is a very successful region. Located on the “Coastal Bend” of south Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico, it’s the home to numerous corporate facilities, oil and gas companies, major engineering and construction companies, warm Gulf air, sunshine, and just about more sailboats than I’ve ever seen in one place. Economically speaking, it’s what a lot of communities want to be. Official accounts reflect that this region has seen over $52 billion in industrial investment in the last decade, if the region was a state of its own, it would rank 8th nationally in new investment. But they have an interesting problem. Despite the billions of dollars in new investments, they’re having a hard time retaining and attracting talent.
“This community has seen a decades-long process of not retaining young people, especially the brightest and most educated, who have moved to larger communities around the state, most notably Austin, San Antonio, and Houston,” said Corpus Christi Regional Economic Development Corporation (CCREDC) President and CEO Iain Vasey. This puts both talent and place at the forefront of economic development efforts.
In late September, we at Place + Main kicked off a “first-of-its-kind” project in partnership with world renown Place Attachment expert, Dr. Katherine Loflin (aka “The City Doctor”,) the University of Michigan-Flint’s Office of Economic Development and the very economically successful Corpus Christi region, led by the CCREDC. The project, “Our Coastal Bend: Creating a Complete Community for Place and Prosperity,” aims to do two things:
1) Understand what makes residents in the region feel emotionally connected to their community; and
2) Develop a plan to enhance and expand those things about the community that are associated with their connection to help retain and attract residents.
Over the next six months our team will conduct this two-phase project. The first phase is a survey developed by Dr. Loflin during her time leading the groundbreaking Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community project, which measured residents’ emotional connection to their cities, what drives it, why it matters to local economic development. The Soul of the Community project, conducted in concert with Gallup, studied attachment in 26 different city regions around the country over three years 2008-2010. This same methodology will be used in the Corpus Christi region as it has in other places around the world.
The second phase will focus on optimizing those things found that help optimize that attachment. Improving key areas of community life, like downtowns and commercial districts, beautification, social opportunities, housing options, walkability, and parks, will be planned with organizations around the region. The proven premise being that people who are more attached to the community have a tendency to spend more time and money there, and also will stay loyal to living there which in turn helps the economic development of the region.
Economic development is often characterized by simply chasing after businesses. But this step forward by the CCREDC, changes their focus. Vasey added, “As an economic development organization, we have a strong record as a transactional outfit, working on employment, investment, and industrial deals. We have not had as much of a history as a transformational organization, namely that beyond job-creation and business expansion/recruitment, we have not worked hard at changing the economic culture in the region. It’s time we focused our energy on building our community attachment index and transforming our identity in terms of quality of place. This is something the best and most strategic-thinking economic development organizations have to really lean into.”
With the importance talent and place have on a community being driven by a prominent regional player like the CCREDC, placemaking, innovative applied survey research, and community development are taking center stage in one of the most well-resourced industries. This can only lead to better outcomes for communities like Corpus Christi and other communities and regions who realize it’s time for a different approach.
It seems overly simplistic, but following the money is a basic rule economists follow. If you want to know people’s motivations for things, especially in the world of public policy, follow the money.
Before we get to why policy decisions are made, let me back up a step and talk about how national chains screw our local economies.
Market Data Flags Your Local Economy for Extraction
A standard practice in economic development for downtowns and main streets is doing a market analysis. A big part of a market analysis is something called retail gap or leakage. This calculates how much people in a geographic area spend on products and services (demand) and compares it to the amount of those same products and services in the same geographic area (supply.) If there’s more demand than supply, then there’s leakage. This means if people don’t have access to the goods and services they want, they likely go somewhere else farther away or online to get it and money leaves the local economy. Chain retail looks for a large amount of retail leakage in their particular sector. If the amount of leakage reaches a certain point, they will consider locating in an area. Every chain has slightly different criteria, but there is an entire sector of the real estate industry that calculates these leakage rates and criteria, and flags them for developers to plop in a nondescript (aka cheap) building on the cheapest land and markets the building to the chain. I personally have sat through demos of these large database firms who brag how with one click, they can give you a list of every national chain who would consider locating on any site you choose. Most small independent businesses have no idea where to even get this data or that it even exists at all.
Chains are Gold Diggers
The most common defense of chain retail is “they employ people and pay taxes.” That’s true. They do. But even with hundreds of employees per store (most making minimum wage) and paying taxes, they are still extracting millions of dollars from your community. Want to know how much? There are two numbers you need to understand. The first is Net Operating Margin. This number is basically the percentage of a store’s sales that are straight profit being shipped back to headquarters, whether its Bentonville, Minneapolis, or wherever. The other number is the average sales per store. If your community charges a local sales tax, you can probably find your specific location easily at City Hall. If not, you can use specific chain averages. These two numbers multiplied show you how much leaves your community every year. If you have several big boxes (which many communities do) then there are tens of millions of dollars leaving your community every year, which you can document like I did below.
Avg. Sales Per Store (National)
Avg. Annual Extraction
Sources: The Motley Fool, Statista, Corporate Filings, 2019
This is a huge transfer of wealth from your local community to the corporate headquarters and shareholders of each of these companies. Assuming locally owned stores would carry the exact same products, this is the most defining difference between chains and locally owned businesses: where the profits end up. As a quick aside, the margin for online retail giant Amazon is only 3.5%, but they lack the overhead of brick-and-mortar stores. And unless you have an Amazon fulfillment center in your community, NONE of that money stays local or employs local residents. Whether its chains or online, money leaves your community making other people rich, but your community poorer.
Chain vs Franchise vs Locally Owned
It would be easy to just say your choices are national chains or locally owned. But there’s another option that muddies the water a bit. These are franchises. Franchises are often locally or regionally owned stores or restaurants, like McDonald’s, but are part of the national corporation. The benefit to local owners is they buy into a proven business model and get support in the form of suppliers, marketing, store design, and in some cases, financing. In these cases, the profit of the store (or stores) is kept locally or regionally. However, these franchises still must pay an annual franchise fee to the national corporation as well pay the suppliers the chain mandates (not from your community.) Remember the national marketing support? Yup, none of that is local either. That goes to firms in New York and other big advertising agencies. The main differences between national chains and franchises versus locally owned boils down to local suppliers, support services like advertising and accounting, and most importantly the local owner who lives in your community. In the end, franchises are slightly better than national chains, but locally owned businesses still retain far more money in the local economy because they use other local businesses.
Paid to Corporate HQ
Why Don’t Local Leaders Care
I do think local leaders care…a little. I believe they see a successful small business and want more of those but have a fundamental disconnect between seeing that business and their policies and priorities. There are three main reasons local leaders pursue national chains over locally owned businesses. These are:
Validation + Vanity
Let’s take a closer look at these…
Validation + Vanity- The sad truth is local leaders often see big national chains as a status symbol. That a big national company would want to come their town says something about their personal leadership. THEY made that happen. But it’s more like the sugar daddy or momma who believes the young, attractive gold digger is there because they see what a truly great person they are and not because they have millions of dollars they want. I once had a local council member come up to me after a speaking engagement and attempt to brag that he and his council, “got together and gave Home Depot $100,000 to come to” their town. It was the first time I had to tell an elected leader they just wasted taxpayer money. He seemed confused at my response. But for them, the fact Home Depot was coming to their town meant more than the fact they were going to put the locally owned hardware stores out of business. He likely either didn’t know or care they were also helping facilitate the extraction of approximately $7 million is wealth transfer out of their community.
Municipal Finance- Municipal financing systems (and therefore motivations) are jacked up no matter where you go in the country. This is where we follow the money. There are two primary drivers from a taxing perspective that fund a lot of municipalities across the country: local sales taxes and property taxes. Local sales taxes are exactly like they sound. A small percentage of tax charged on the item sold. How does this promote chains? The simple math is the more retail sales that occur in a municipality, the more revenue they generate. Therefore, the motivation in this financing model is to help facilitate as many sales as possible. Who is set up to generate a lot of sales? National chains. They do national advertising buys and have easily recognizable brands. The bigger the box, the more sales and sales taxes they generate. In this model, overbuilding big box retail to become a regional hub is rewarded and where the profit goes is of no consequence. The other big taxing mechanism is through real property taxes, or taxes levied on real estate. In this model, the more real estate that is built, the more revenue. This results in a windfall of new cash every time a new building goes up. The fact infrastructure must be extended (and often initially paid for by developers) is largely ignored. The net result in the short-term is this windfall, regardless if the market data supports new construction. The long-term costs increase pressure for new revenue results in, you guessed it, the need for more development to pay for the last round of development. This creates a vicious cycle of growth and debt until the municipality either A) runs out of land or B) creates such a large blight problem from development leap frogging into new construction and leaving previous iterations behind.
It’s Easier- Recruiting big boxes stores is fairly easy. As I mentioned earlier, the market data is half the battle. Freeway access is the other. And there are huge associations like the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) who act as a sort of a Tinder for chains and locations. After that, inertia takes over. Helping start successful small businesses is hard work. Really hard. You have to find people who are motivated to be their own boss, quit their job, put their life savings on the line, find financing, and be able to function for at least the first year at a loss. The success rate isn’t terribly high either. So, it’s messy too. Lots of small businesses don’t make it past the first year. As a former local economic development official, I will also tell you that people (especially economic development professionals) don’t want to be associated with failure. Small business development takes a ton of time and energy and doesn’t always pan out. Why spend all that time, frustration, and money when it’s easier to recruit big retailer. On top of that, your local elected leaders really like it when you bring them a retailer their constituents know and love, and they provide some of your funding. If you’re a developer, you really want a national chain to fill your commercial space, even in a mixed-use and/or downtown project. Because of the high failure rate of small businesses, developers want to know they can count on the rent from those spaces. National retail chains are considered, “blue chip tenants.” This means they can sign long-term leases that make the developer and property managers life easier, can help them secure financing for their projects and provide revenue that makes the building more valuable.
Now that you know how and why the chips are stacked against small businesses, what do you do now? Well, acknowledging you have a problem is the first step towards recovery. The first step is telling dad his 20-something year old girlfriend isn’t into him for his good looks. You will have to connect the dots for your local leaders on how much money leaves the community. Even then, the power of the existing municipal financing model will be hard to break. The goal of economic development should be the creation of local wealth. If that’s the case, then a municipal funding model should follow suit. Shifting from local sales tax or property tax to a local income tax makes the municipality vested in seeing its residents financially succeed. But this is difficult to do alone because if a local government institutes a local income tax and the neighboring one doesn’t, the immediate reaction is high income residents will move to the taxing jurisdiction that doesn’t. They might. But if it’s coupled with lower property taxes or lowered sales tax, it becomes more palatable. Also, while some people might move, there will not be a mass exodus because of a local income tax. And if a local income tax isn’t sellable where you live, you at least know what the problem is and may be able to address it with more of a locally driven idea. I’m not here to handcuff your creativity.
As for addressing the vanity and economic development aspects of this, talking up the importance of locally-owned businesses (and finding great examples in other places) and putting an emphasis on how attractive they are to other locals, and even to visitors if it helps make your argument. Creating unique places isn’t just about architecture and public space, but the impacts unique businesses have on the quality of life and ability to keep and attract residents is a growing factor in economic development as well.
To change the way our local governments value small businesses will not be an easy or fast process, and ultimately you may not even win. But it’s the fight that needs to happen if we want to fix our local governments and help local residents have ownership of communities.
Joe Borgstrom is a principal with Place + Main Advisors, LLC. Place + Main specializes in economic development, downtown and real estate redevelopment, community marketing, and public relations.
“Nothing for us, without us.” – Jermain Ruffin, Host and Founder, “The Streets Are Planning” podcast
There seems to have always been winners and losers in community redevelopment, especially in larger cities. In these big cities, the winners were the “smart” developers, mostly white, who would swoop in and purchase a beautiful and historic, but unused and blighted property in an “up and coming” part of town. The losers were those community members, often black, whose neighborhoods were bought up by these smart developers and were relocated somewhere else. The developers were seen as the saviors by our industry because the community “had let” their neighborhood get to a dilapidated state.
For many of us in this field, and let’s face it, it’s mostly a white field, this narrative rings true though it makes us cringe a little. It might’ve made us a little uncomfortable, but in the end, a wealthy developer did keep a building from crumbling and added something beautiful to the neighborhood. The fact that the inhabitants of the rehabbed building weren’t people already from that neighborhood, but young white 20-somethings often being called one of the most ignorant and racist names, “urban pioneers.” Pioneers, mind you, were white settlers who were (and still are) celebrated for taking over native American land, and either killing the local tribes or forcing them to relocate to vastly smaller chunks of land at the hand of the federal government. Applying this to the city meant saying essentially cities were unsettled places because only people of color lived there.
Calling Bullshit on the Current System
I’m not here to vilify developers who seized an opportunity. But the opportunity was there because of a long and sorted history of racism that goes back hundreds of years in our country. Without rehashing all those hundreds of years, one only needs to look back at the last 100 years to see how whenever a neighborhood of color in a large city started to become successful it was either violently destroyed (Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921), plowed over (every interstate created in every large city in the 20th century), or systematically destroyed through practices like redlining. Redlining, if you’re not familiar with the term, refers to a practice banks, insurance companies, and even cities would literally mark on a map with a red marker areas that were primarily owned by people of color. The people and businesses within these areas would be denied loans to purchase homes or invest in businesses. On the public side, infrastructure investments would be minimized, and police presence treated these areas with particular suspicion. By denying the people in these neighborhoods the same resources their counterparts in mostly white neighborhoods could get, not only killed off their ability to build wealth, but in many cases limited those folks who did own a home from using the equity in their home to make improvements over time. Those who could afford to move from these spaces often did, but many could not. These policies over decades created large swaths of blighted property. Over time, these blighted properties have been scooped up by mostly white landlords, many putting little to no investment into these properties earning the title “slum lord,” further exacerbating the problem. The systematic denying of capital to these neighborhoods have manifested numerous other issues as well such as underfunded schools due to lack of revenue from property or local sales taxes, lack of overall educational attainment, and earning potential are just a few. There are numerous pieces of literature on the topic and I encourage everyone to read them. For a quick primer, I would start with this 2017 article form National Public Radio, “A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America.”
It’s hard to fix hundreds of years of fucked up practices in a few simple steps and I won’t pretend to. But we can at least do better. There’s a handful of things we can do in the planning and economic development professions to begin to bridge the divide that has been created between the development haves and have nots. There are three main areas we should focus on related to economic development: Education, Finance, and Opportunity. While these efforts can and should be targeted to communities of color first, the beauty of these areas are they can be applied to any size community and values and prioritizes local residents over outside people.
There are numerous financial literacy programs that exist to help people how to manage their personal finances. But few communities have used resources like the Incremental Development Alliance, let alone marketed them to communities of color. Helping aspiring developers to understanding the development process, constructing financial pro formas, affordable development options, and creative financing are what programs like Incremental Development Alliance is about. Providing access to this education should be a community’s highest priority if they want to create local developers. Likewise, Small Business Development Centers also exist and offer small business planning for free but are often located on university campuses and gear themselves towards college students. These offices should be located in more accessible areas like downtowns or neighborhood storefronts. Burying them in potentially intimidating settings like administration buildings on college campuses limits who can easily access them.
While redlining was outlawed over fifty years ago, many of those practices have continued. Furthermore, the effects of the redlining, like a lack of homeownership equity a person could use to leverage for financing a business or development project, still very much exist. Obviously, continuing to fight redlining policies to encourage home ownership is a critical first step to creating local wealth. In addition, access to capital remains one of the largest barriers for prospective business owners and developers in the black community. Larger cities can use their annual Community Development Block Grants (or CDBG) to create what are called section 108 loans, that can serve low income individuals and help them start businesses. They could even appropriate money from general funds to match various federal programs from the Small Business Administration and others to create specialized loan pools. But in my opinion, the greatest potential tool to enable local developers and create local wealth in the surrounding neighborhoods is for-profit crowdfunding, which was made legal by the JOBS Act of 2012, but has gone largely unused. Crowdfunding is not a new term. In its short history, crowdfunding has typically been used by non-profits to raise funds for a project. It’s largely been used as a donation model. However, with changes that occurred in 2012, small businesses and developers can solicit investment from their neighborhoods. There are several companies who do this type of work (MainVest,WeFunder, Republic, and MicroVentures are a few) but many potential small business owners and developers have no idea they exist.
This is where our communities really need to put up or shut up. It’s one thing to provide education and financing tools. But if you don’t proactively provide opportunities, you really aren’t doing a whole lot to create systemic change. From a commercial perspective, local institutions (cities, hospitals, universities) could provide either local business set aside or local supplier preference (where bids within 10% of lowest cost are accepted if the business is local or minority owned.) These institutions spend millions of dollars a year and helping to level the playing field can go a long way in making small businesses successful. From a real estate perspective, the opportunity to buy, renovate, and rent or flip tax reverted properties is the other low hanging fruit. Typically, communities sell tax reverted properties in one of two ways. The first is through public tax auction. This is where slum lords come and buy up properties to add to their portfolio and is designed to quickly get properties back on the tax rolls regardless of intent of the buyers. The second is through land banks. Land banks are state legislatively created and take tax reverted properties and can hold on to them and are given wide latitude in redevelopment. A standard practice with land banks is to take a tax reverted property and either renovate it themselves and flip it or they will sometimes see if an adjoining property owner wants to buy a vacant lot it for a nominal fee and join the lots as one big yard. If we were to couple training like Incremental Development Alliance’s small developer boot camp, financing tools like crowdfunding, and provide these small developers with opportunities in their own neighborhoods then we are killing several birds with one stone. We could build wealth, remediate blight, and build stronger neighborhoods without displacing residents.
There’s a lot more that could and needs to be said and changes that need to happen. But these are a few pragmatic steps that communities can take to start to bridge the gap and help to create more locally owned businesses and small-scale developers in communities of color. We must do better.