Mary Beth Bass: Status quo or what if?

Published 1:30 pm Wednesday, August 2, 2017

I have an article that I pull out from time to time to remind myself of how difficult it is to impact economic growth and economic development — particularly in communities. A good friend of mine often reminds me that people who talk about economic development aren’t typically talking about economics at all. A personal frustration of his, he reminds me all the time that economy is about choices and resource allocation, the decision to distribute resources (money, time, people, capital, etc.) towards one area of perceived value or another. It’s always a foundational reminder and it coincides with the thinking of my favorite article, “Do Cities Really Want Economic Development?”
Published in 2014, in an online publication of Governing magazine, the article by Aaron Renn questions cities’ dedication to the pursuit of economic development. Arguing that communities are like people, that take actions and make choices that result in what they actually want, versus what they say they want, he tells a joke to illustrate his point. Borrowing from economist David Friedman, Renn recounts the following:  “ Two economists walk past a Porsche showroom. One of them points at a shiny car in the window and says, ‘I want that.’  ‘Obviously not,’ the other replies.”
While it takes a second to process what the friend is saying to his sports-car loving companion, take that to heart for a minute; think about it. Isn’t his statement true to some extent? In our personal lives, don’t we work to get what we really want, if we really want it? We save for that dream vacation, new car, or a night out to dinner if we really want it. We make that economic decision to allocate our resources if it’s of value to us — even if it takes years to achieve.
Renn continues that communities often stay within the current state of status quo because perhaps, somewhere in a hidden corner that no one talks about, those in the “power broker class” benefit — or at least don’t face the threat of losing something of value to them. In other words, they have an interest to protect, although often they are not ill-intentioned by any means; it could simply be fear of the unknown that is driving their economic choices or decisions. Booming communities are growing communities that invite all types of outsiders into the circle of decision-making by simply bringing in new ideas, energy and ways of doing things. They bring change and question old answers to long-held beliefs about what works and what doesn’t. This is vastly uncomfortable to some. Slum landlords are questioned; restrictive covenants in business and historic districts are reevaluated; public officials are held to a higher standard of services and expectations; the education of young people is graded on a different evaluative scale; and the “blind eye” to certain behaviors and social norms is no longer without sight. All pretty tough stuff.
How would you go about doing that? If it were up to you, as a resident, a taxpayer, a business owner in Sumter County, how would you facilitate that change? Would you? Do you really want the Porsche or not?
My guess is that everyone will have different answers to those questions, but please take the time to think about how you would personally go about impacting such change in your community. Would you make the choices necessary to facilitate true economic development? Do you want it bad enough to shake things up a little?
I hear from all types of community members every day — it’s one of the blessings and gifts of this position. In fact, a lady just left my office sharing a deeply personal story about the hope she feels for Americus and Sumter County thanks to the efforts being championed on behalf of One Sumter by many across the community. There is a hope and whisper for change, and that feels good to a lot of people. I often wonder if we could get out of our own way, what sort of change might occur. What will be the tipping point for Sumter County? I personally believe we are there — our demographics alone tell the story of the challenges we face. For all the good we want to accomplish for our community, the challenges are amplified because they have sat and stewed, they have “married,” for so long.
Let’s play a “What if,” game for Sumter County. What if we said “no more, the status quo is no longer acceptable”? What if we embraced the innovation that many communities around the state already have in terms of economic incentives, education, and service provision? What if we said what we really meant and then set about working together for solutions and not complaints? What if we said and truly believed Sumter County was the best community in South Georgia in which to live and then spent our time, energy and resources making sure everyone in the state of Georgia knew it?
Would it change our behaviors, our actions, our decisions? Rarely do I believe in a top-down approach, but leadership, particularly leadership for change, has to be driven from the top down. You have to 100 percent believe and commit to a higher level of being, talk it, live it, breathe it, work it — and make sure everyone you know understands it and operates accordingly. “Less than the best is no longer acceptable,” and mean it. What if we didn’t accept the status quo any more, but truly believed we were worth more, and set about allocating the economic resources to make it so?
Do we want a Porsche, or don’t we?

Mary Beth Bass is executive director, One Sumter Economic Development Foundation Inc.