The Secret to Economic Resiliency (It’s Not What You Think)

A close-up image of a U.S quarter showing the words "E pluribus unum"

Want to learn more? If you’re attending this year’s International Economic Development Council’s (IEDC) annual conference in Oklahoma City on September 18-21, you won’t want to miss the session Dan Gundersen is moderating titled “Economic Change in a World Divided.” The session starts at 4 p.m. on Monday, September 19, and will look at how to achieve important economic development goals in a world where consensus and compromise are increasingly hard to come by. You’ll hear from a fantastic on-stage panel:

  • Maureen Krauss, President and CEO of Detroit Regional Partnership (MI)
  • Kenny McDonand, CEcD, President and CEO of One Columbus (OH)
  • Craig Richardson, CEcD, FM, President and CEO of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council (FL)
  • Jeff Seymour, CEcD, Executive VP of Economic Development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber (OK)

Plus, commentary from nationally recognized experts Wendy Feliz, Center for Inclusion and Belonging, American Immigration Council, Matt Leighninger, Head of Democracy Innovation at the National Conference on Citizenship, and Valerie Lemmie, Director of Exploratory Research at the Kettering Foundation.

We hope to see you there!


Two of the most polarizing words today are politics and pandemic, and most Americans are sick of both. So, what does this mean for economic development? In short, it means everything.

Economic developers pragmatically understand that economic growth requires private and public sector collaboration and healthy, respectful collaborative relationships. They know communities that are divided cannot grow and that prosperity means little if it’s just for the privileged few.

We try our best to keep a safe distance from the political muck and work hard to find bounce in pandemic-weary markets. We would prefer things return to a safer normal as soon as possible; but how is that possible when the foundation of trust in an economic system that works for all has been so severely weakened?

Carl Jung once said, “What you resist persists.” And so, we have no choice but to jump, feet first, into this messed up reality and champion economic resiliency by focusing on improving the decision-making processes within our civic infrastructure and becoming peacemakers for prosperity.

‘It’s Resiliency, Stupid!’

I have a pin stuck to a bulletin board in my home office that reads “It’s Economic Development, Stupid!” It is a play on political strategist James Carville’s oft-repeated slogan that elections are all about the economy.

When Carville said that, my boss at the time—former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell—tweaked the phrase and wore the pin when no one seemed to understand what economic development was all about.

Today, the words on that pin could read: “It’s Resiliency, Stupid.”

A button on a bulletin board reads "It's Resiliency, Stupid."

Economic resiliency is little understood, and yet it is imperative for economic developers to master, so, let’s break it down:

Disruptions to economies can occur from downturns in industries, national or international events that impact demand for goods and consumer spending, natural and manmade disasters, social unrest, and countless other issues that negatively influence a region’s economic activity.

A community’s economic resilience is determined by the ability of its leaders to anticipate these risks and evaluate the impacts, plus their capacity to make sound decisions involving diverse inputs, and their willingness to take proactive (and possibly unpopular) actions to minimize such risks.

That can be a tall order.

It’s All About Execution

The global pandemic accelerated efforts of many economic developers to diversify the base of industries in their communities, ramp up support for innovation and new technologies to spur business growth, work with employers and workforce professionals to address labor shortages, and recruit employees.

Business retention and expansion programs are in the spotlight more than ever, as is highly sophisticated algorithm-driven targeted messaging to prospective investors. These efforts, and many others in the toolbox, contribute in varying degrees to improved resiliency.

Yet, no amount of funding, think tank research, or algorithms alone will solve the human problems that stymie economic growth in a region, such as political vitriol, inadequate leadership, poor decision making, failure to work together, and the inability or lack of interest in addressing social, institutional, and systemic challenges.

These interpersonal and group dynamic factors are important because preventing or helping a community withstand an economic crisis comes down to the abilities of the people who lead and of those who must follow. Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn-Ferry, believes that “Strategy is 90% execution—and 90% of execution is people.” We agree. That’s why Camoin Associates has a service line for Strategic Planning and Organizational Development because the one is pointless without the other.

I just completed an assignment for top elected officials in 18 jurisdictions, 15 towns, and three cities in western Connecticut to produce a unified five-year regional Strategy Map. By intentionally focusing on 12 core objectives around which all municipalities could agree and derive benefit we were able to produce 30 strategic actions with associated metrics. This Strategy Map will now be used as a balanced scorecard for improved decision-making.

In this case, respect and consideration for each municipality’s unique needs were key in developing the trust needed to better position the region for economic resiliency.

A Camoin Associates-led stakeholder meeting
Elected leaders working together to improve the economy and quality of life in western Connecticut.

No More ‘My Way or the Highway’

The new world has taught us that where there is a will, there is a . . . may.

Just because someone or some organization has the power to do something doesn’t mean it will get done. I am not talking about one’s persuasive abilities or grit and determination: attributes economic developers have in excess. What I am referring to is the ability of a person to keep an open mind and work with others to discover and accept solutions that may or may not be what they thought were needed at first.

These days the idea that people will act together to achieve mutually rewarding goals can seem improbable to the optimist and downright ludicrous to the pessimist. So, when a community needs to act together to address crises that negatively impact its economy, such as those presented by the COVID pandemic, its members must first get their act together. In other words, they need to find a civil way to get on the same page.

It is hard work to honestly assess the effectiveness of efforts being made by leaders in an organization, let alone a community of leaders, and to judge how well they work together. In fact, for obvious job preservation reasons, I can’t remember ever receiving a Request for Proposals (RFP) from a public agency that included this type of assessment. It is much safer to ask that such plans include data analysis, highlight issues facing a community, and provide recommendations for action. Then, when the plan is completed, the implied assumption is that it can and will be executed.

An economic resiliency plan is neither a classic strategic plan nor a contingency plan. It melds operational and strategic thinking to mitigate weaknesses within systems, including the assessment of the most important change factor of all: the capacity and ability for key stakeholder groups to take collective actions to make things happen.

An economic resiliency plan is neither a classic strategic plan nor a contingency plan. It melds operational and strategic thinking to mitigate weaknesses within systems, including the assessment of the most important change factor of all: the capacity and ability for key stakeholder groups to take collective actions to make things happen.

An example of this sort of brave act of public leadership occurred when a small business owner named George Borrello ran for Chautauqua County Executive and won. He did not propose, as many New York politicians are keen to do, a legacy project promising to bring tens of thousands of jobs. Instead, he spoke truth to local institutional power–that there were too many groups in the county tripping over each other in the name of economic development. What he thought was most needed was an alliance of stakeholders devoted to accomplishing the same overarching goals.

Borrello believed consensus and structure should come before strategy and project development. At the same time, a separate, somewhat similar dynamic was occurring on the other side of the state in Albany County.

In separate actions, both counties hired Camoin Associates to find common ground between their economic, social, civic, and political representatives. With support from the new county executives and their development officials, we were able to successfully build trust and advance collaboration within the economic development and business leadership of these two very different counties.

We were then retained to work with more than 50 stakeholders in each county to develop economic development strategic plans, form new entities, and advise on implementation. This work helped both counties leverage significant public and private resources, develop transformative projects, and discover newfound confidence.

The Key to Success: Sound Civic Infrastructure

The true secret to economic resiliency is having sound civic infrastructure, as the examples above demonstrate so well.

Economic development organizations on their own cannot optimize resiliency because the numerous inputs to prosperity are scattered across the civic landscape and under the purview of others (e.g. transportation, philanthropy, arts and culture, childcare, tourism, education, health, workforce, etc.).

Economic development organizations on their own cannot optimize resiliency because the numerous inputs to prosperity are scattered across the civic landscape and under the purview of others.

A good way to combat viral attacks that undermine confidence within a community during an economic crisis is to gain the support of these different stakeholders around a common agenda and then produce visible, measurable results.

The biggest questions when developing economic resiliency strategies are always around capacity and resources—not just what must be done, but who (plural) will get it done? It is imperative, therefore, to assess the ability of your regional stakeholders to effectively work together. Far too many brilliant strategies end up dead on arrival because there is no trusted collaborative group in place and/or the willpower to execute tough actions is lacking.

Key features of sound civic infrastructure are trust, respect, and an open and willing desire to work together. With this kind of infrastructure, all things are possible. Without it, you get more of the same until you get no more.

Camoin just completed an Economic Resiliency Strategy for the Capital Region of Michigan, funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration. For this project, we developed a Civic Index with qualitative and quantitative inputs to measure the effectiveness of 40 stakeholders’ efforts. We analyzed data points and dozens of issues facing the region and drilled down on whether the capacity existed to resolve them.

The index helped stakeholders objectively see patterns and better understand the inter-connectedness of the problems and how they needed to work together—not in silos—to advance their interests while also addressing orphaned and systemic problems. It was a reality check to pinpoint the gaps in an otherwise well-respected, high-functioning community.

Be a Peacemaker for Prosperity

Left to its own devices, uncertainty will stoke fear. Economic leaders must neither fight stubbornly against nor flee tough challenges even those that portend danger. Instead, they need to master the art of working with as many people as possible on the problems at hand to achieve better outcomes.

In times of extreme stress, we now know that the first thing to expect is that power will temporarily go offline. I’m not talking about electricity, but willpower. We lost precious days, weeks, and months—and tragically, human lives—from inaction and poor decision making in the early days of the pandemic. This was exacerbated by a flurry of fight, flee, and blame games. First came distrust and infighting amongst elected leaders, followed by empty grandstanding by these same leaders, before some empirically based commonsense measures for how to proceed eventually came forward.

Nowhere was this more evident than within state and federal governments and their relationships with the healthcare community during COVID. After the first full year of the pandemic, I was asked to help lead an effort to evaluate the response of Virginia’s hospitals and healthcare systems to the pandemic and recommend needed changes. Working with C-suite to frontline healthcare workers and taking some pages from existing emergency preparedness plans, the Camoin Associates team was able to review problem areas and develop new procedures.

The willpower to succeed within these health professionals was forged from trust and fortified by group action that was established many years before the pandemic. Resiliency requires focused attention on establishing trust long before a crisis hits.

The COVID era has revealed an enduring truth: it is people—friends, colleagues, teams, managers, leaders, entrepreneurs, and good-hearted individuals—who overcome odds to discover and disrupt, innovate, and create, and who get us moving again. An economic developer’s job is to step into the fray to bring these diverse interests together to quell the cynics and coordinate efforts to produce the positive changes their communities deserve and expect.

As concerned citizens and leaders for economic growth, making these positive changes happen could be the most difficult challenge an economic developer will face in their career and probably their lifetime.

E Pluribus Unum: “Out of many, one.”

Prior to joining Camoin Associates, the author led economic development efforts for four states, a major metropolitan area, and the then 4th largest U.S. city. He is a Fellow and Honorary Life Member of the International Economic Development Council.