Healthcare: Rx for Economic Growth

May 19, 2011

By: Jon Roberts and Caroline Alexander, TIP Strategies
Via: IEDC, ED Now (member login required)

The impressive expansion of the nation’s healthcare sector has proven resistant to economic downturns. Over the last two business cycles, healthcare employment has grown by more than 30 percent nationally. Total nonfarm employment, on the other hand, has increased by just 3 percent. This resilience is almost certain to continue. Optimistic growth prospects are well supported by demographic trends. As a result, the sector has caught the eye of many communities seeking to strengthen their economies. The challenge for economic development organizations is how to maximize the economic benefit of this sector.

While healthcare may not be seen as a traditional target for economic development, the sector offers many of the benefits of a “primary industry:” it often draws in outside dollars, it has linkages across a wide supply chain, and it offers a number of opportunities for high-wage, skilled jobs. In addition, access to healthcare has become an essential element of a region’s infrastructure. For these reasons, targeting healthcare can be an effective way to strengthen and expand a regional economy. The following framework provides a starting point for communities that want to consider this strategy.

1. Assess the sector. Economic development organizations typically have an incomplete picture of who is involved in providing medical services. They may have the CEO of the regional hospital on their board, but they may not know what services are (and are not) provided or how a hospital relates to clinics and physicians outside the system. More importantly, they may not have a full understanding of the supply chain on which the hospital relies. Assessing the sector and creating a complete cluster and network map is the starting point for crafting a healthcare strategy.

2. Engage relevant stakeholders. The next step involves understanding your local sector’s growth prospects. This requires direct communication with relevant stakeholders – regional healthcare providers, higher education institutions, and the local development community. Regional healthcare providers can provide information about their expansion plans and workforce needs. Higher education partners can provide insight into corresponding training programs, key research initiatives, and expansion plans. Beyond that, engaging the development community on the benefits of anchoring developments with healthcare and medical assets can lay a strategic foundation.

3. Identify the opportunity. With a complete picture of the healthcare sector and a deep understanding of its growth prospects, the community is ready to identify possible “catalyst” projects. These projects should include more than one strategic anchor that will help the project reach critical mass. Projects should be evaluated based on their potential job creation, tax revenue generation, capital costs to the community, and other tangible and intangible benefits. The project with the highest potential should be prioritized for investment.

4. Establish a framework. The tools needed to promote the opportunity must be put in place, starting with a clear vision and attainable goals for the project. Then, a framework must be established through the community’s regulatory environment and resource allocation to advance the opportunity. This will involve planning tools such as zoning and overlay districts. Adequate funding sources, including grants, bonds, and tax increment reinvestment zones, also need to be identified to finance needed infrastructure. Innovative incentives programs that support the recruitment of key tenants should also be part of the mix.

5. Implement. Ultimately, success depends on a shared vision. Keeping stakeholders fully engaged from inception to implementation will require an integrated approach – one that also involves business recruitment, marketing, entrepreneurship, and workforce development. A concerted effort can yield tangible and widespread benefits.

How it’s working in Round Rock, Texas

Round Rock is one of a growing number of examples of how the healthcare sector can be harnessed for economic development. Using a large tract donated by a local landowner, the City of Round Rock, in collaboration with the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, higher education institutions, and regional healthcare providers, has formed a nascent, yet robust, healthcare cluster.
The basis of Round Rock’s approach was the creation of a medical education campus. The campus links medical education programs (offered by Texas A&M Health Science Center, Texas State University School of Nursing, and Austin Community College) with regional healthcare providers (Seton Medical Center Williamson, St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center, Scott & White University Medical Center, and Lonestar Circle of Care). The campus functions as an anchor for Avery Centre, a commercial node of the Avery Farms master-planned development. Employees, patients, visitors, and students connected with the medical education campus enhance the commercial and retail value of the development.

The project is textbook economic development – it generates high-paying professional jobs, enhances Round Rock’s workforce training, creates a magnet for talent, boosts commercial tax rolls, supports retail development, serves as an asset to attract bioscience companies (a target industry) and provides a valuable community service. What more could a single project strive for?