Developing an Economic Sustainability Plan

This article appeared in the June 12, 2023, issue of ED Now, the International Economic Development Council’s members-only newsletter. It is reposted here with permission.

Sustainability planning is often seen as the purview of climate scientists and environmental groups. Though economic developers are uniquely positioned to impact the industries, businesses, physical environment, and economic resilience of the communities in which they work, communities rarely undertake sustainability planning for their economic development programs—a missed opportunity.

An economic sustainability plan can help create consensus around goals, strategies, and actions that meet the needs of the present without risking the prospects of future generations. Critical questions to ask when creating an economic sustainability plan include:

  1. What are you trying to solve for, and what are you trying to achieve?
  2. What will it take to achieve the plan’s objectives, and who will be impacted by the outcomes of your efforts?
  3. How will you know if you have succeeded?

What are you trying to solve for, and what are you trying to achieve?

A meaningful sustainability plan is grounded in solving a problem or set of problems through clearly defined goals, strategies, and actions designed to achieve a set of measurable outcomes. Economic developers leading a plan are responsible for identifying their community’s sustainability-related challenges and crafting responses to those issues.

There are many ways to interpret sustainability. It’s important to ensure that a sustainability plan aligns with what the community needs and what an organization’s or community’s leadership expects. Potential focus areas for economic sustainability plans include one or more of the following.

  • Developing green jobs, industries, and businesses
  • Addressing disparities in access to economic opportunity
  • Mitigating the environmental impacts of industry or commuting patterns
  • Facilitating sustainable growth
  • Encouraging infill or adaptable reuse in the built environment
  • Ensuring financial sustainability
  • Creating greater resilience after a natural or man-made disaster

In the wake of the pandemic, the five Economic Development Districts of Idaho (EDDIs) came together to create a framework for resilience planning that would prepare them to respond to future disruptions. Their Economic Disaster Recovery and Resiliency Plan framework was also designed to meet EDA’s requirements for inclusion in each region’s comprehensive economic development strategy (CEDS). By leveraging federal funding, the EDDIs were able to put in place a standardized yet customizable framework for economic response, recovery, and resilience to meet future challenges.

What will it take to achieve the plan’s objectives, and who will be impacted by the outcomes of your efforts?

With an established understanding of what your economic sustainability plan is designed to solve and achieve, the next step is to gain an understanding of the status quo through quantitative and qualitative data.

Quantitative data about industries and business, the labor market, demographics, commuting trends, and environmental impacts are often available through U.S. government resources or private data providers. This data equips economic developers with baseline trends and point-in-time information, potentially revealing new areas of focus or concern. Within the context of an economic sustainability plan, it might be useful to gather information about the business focus of local green industries and what their supply chains, environmental impacts, and workforces look like. Understanding the small business landscape—the number and types of businesses, potential vulnerabilities, and available support resources—is important to designing responsive strategies for this sector. In addition, gathering information about attributes of the local workforce such as education, employment by industry, and commuting patterns may help to identify local strengths and areas of opportunity for future growth and development.

In 2021, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning revisited the region’s target industries with an eye towards supporting vulnerable populations and underperforming areas. Driven by the need for economic recovery from the upheaval caused by the pandemic, their Inclusive Growth Analysis used detailed data on more than 700 occupations to pinpoint occupations and populations for support and sustainability planning. Their interactive Occupational Accessibility Tool assessed job quality and accessibility to identify where support was needed to expand opportunities for greater prosperity and create a more resilient labor market.

Qualitative data obtained through an inclusive stakeholder engagement process will add context to the plan’s goals and objectives and create connections between the planning process and the community. When working on a plan, think through who may be affected directly or indirectly, and how to reach the people and groups who may be left out of traditional processes. Strategies for gathering feedback may include town hall meetings held in-person or virtually, roundtable and small group discussions, one-on-one interviews, surveys, and web- based community engagement tools. Reaching people where they are is also an effective strategy. Examples include setting up a table at a local event or library, facilitating walking tours of important places, or joining the agenda of an existing meeting to share the project and gather feedback.

As the challenges and opportunities of your plan become a bit clearer, it can be helpful to look for communities or organizations that have tackled similar situations to gain an understanding of their successes and lessons learned. A good place to start is to look at peer or competitor communities, followed by searching online and researching award-winning association-based projects or initiatives.

How will you know if you have succeeded?

Once a plan has been developed, the goals, strategies, and actions need to be translated into an implementation strategy and corresponding success metrics to ensure the plan’s long-term vitality. Crafting an implementation strategy involves assigning responsibility and operationalizing the plan. This step can be accomplished through an implementation matrix. Designed to be a living document that is updated as the environment changes, the matrix also maintains the integrity of the plan’s strategies and actions. Within the matrix, each action item is assigned a lead entity, supporting partners, an estimated timeline, and space to track milestones or updates. These updates are especially important for plans with a long-term horizon; organizations, staff, budgets, and priorities are certain to change over time.

The implementation matrix is used to measure progress within the context of the plan, and metrics are used to gauge impact. Metrics will vary depending on the desired outcomes and goals of your economic sustainability plan, as they measure the outputs and impact of the plan. Baseline economic indicators such as median household income or the percentage of workers in living-wage jobs may be used to assess community-wide progress, while more specific measures such as the amount of capital invested in small businesses or number of new green jobs might be more closely tied to initiatives in the plan.

One often-overlooked aspect of performance measurement is how progress is communicated to stakeholders. The preparation of a communication and engagement strategy was a central part of the Idaho disaster recovery planning effort. The strategy segmented stakeholders into groups based on the type of outreach required (awareness-raising, information-sharing, or collaboration) and outlined available channels and tools for the EDDIs to communicate outcomes.

As the community makes progress on its sustainability plan, communicating outcomes is a way to celebrate shared milestones and achievements. These victories can be highlighted during in-person events and through virtual platforms, encouraging continued progress. They also represent an opportunity to share success stories and highlight the essential role of economic developers in economic resilience and sustainability.

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