Rethinking local economic development in the United States

My career has focused on economic and community development. I’ve been fortunate to view this important policy area from many angles – in my professional career, my volunteer work, and my research as an independent historian.

In my professional career, I worked in public finance and economic development for eleven years in the public sector, negotiating over two billion dollars in public-private partnerships, while administering recruitment, retention and incubator programs that comprise the core of most local economic development programs. I followed my public career with eight years as a small business person, brokering real estate transactions, lining up capital for urban infill projects, permitting and building hotels, and advising national corporations on asset management issues. Finally, I spent nine years in the private sector with Fortune 1000 companies, leading real estate acquisitions and site selection for corporate facilities as a senior manager and executive.

My volunteer work has also centered on community development. I served as a political appointee on the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Commission and the City of San Marino Planning Commission. I have volunteered for several non-profits, including the Women’s Civic Improvement Club in Sacramento and the Nehemiah Community Development Corporation in Richmond, Virginia.

My historical research has focused on biographies of two relatives, one a radical merchant capitalist from the Gilded Age, and the other a U.S. Senator that carried much of FDR’s agenda in the New Deal era.  My research and writings have focused on their populist agenda and their battles against corporate capitalism.

Collectively, through my professional career, volunteer work, and historical research, I have come to the conclusion that traditional local economic development practices (recruit new businesses, retain existing businesses, and incubate local business) are obsolete, will continue to fail communities, and will only enrich a self-perpetuating complex of public officials and economists.  I’m certainly not alone in expressing frustration that we have not found the key to changing the economic dynamics of distressed communities. USC’s recent publication on place-based economic development is replete with commentary from frustrated  practitioners.

In studying the careers of my relatives, both whom engaged in community development and employee relations issues, I learned that my frustration has been shared by at least four preceding generations. The struggle to protect and enhance the economies of local communities, in the face of federal and corporate intervention, has spanned 120 years. During this time,. local communities have been on the losing end of numerous legal rulings and federal laws. To counterbalance this long history of favoritism toward national  or international business, it will require a significant revision in local economic development policy.  To engage a new set of economic development options, communities must understand the tilt of the table, recognize the relative value of current efforts, and then consider bold options. Examples of bold actions are clearly seen in the disruptive tactics that are the mainstay of the technology sector. Communities should feel emboldened to take aggressive action under broad police powers left to States by the Constitution.


Walter Reuther speaks at banquet honoring cousin Sen. James E. Murray with the CIO’s Community Service Award. Murray introduced the Full Employment Act of 1945, in addition to several other progressive bills. Phillip Murray (no relation) center/Sen. Murray far right.

The notion of disruptive economic development practices is not entirely new for some States and local governments. Rural communities have been fighting federal interference for over a hundred years, defending locally owned farms against loose interpretations of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which has let corporations wipe out some communities with industrial scale operations. Their fight is instructive for urban economies which have also been damaged by distant corporations absorbing main street businesses once operated ably by local residents. There are also examples of disruptive practices in urban communities – noticeably  with “buy local” or “farm to table” initiatives. However, to counterbalance the federal government’s devastating industrial policy, much more radical options are needed for communities to recapture millions of tax and payroll dollars extracted by distant corporations.