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How do you Value Different Economic Development Ideas in Your Town? Communities’ Priorities among Economic and Quality-of-Life Project Concepts

In our last theme, we began to explore how communities might think about economic development ideas for their community by looking at the gaps between satisfaction with what is available to the community for a series of assets and the importance of those assets to members of the community.  In this installment of our series, we examine the priorities for and the possible trade-offs that communities often have to make between economic development and quality-of-life-enhancing investments.

Communities who aspire to sustainably develop their community in ways that improve their economy and enhance their quality-of-life face constrained choices about which projects have the best fit for their community.  What are the priorities among the options that a community might consider?  Should communities focus on economic development, improving quality of life, enhancing basic community services, or should communities try to address multiple areas with the projects that they choose?  What are the trade-offs that are considered when selecting one project over another?  To what degree are a community’s priorities aligned relative to these choices?  Which segments of a community prefer one project over another?  We begin to examine some of these questions in this installment by presenting survey findings about a set of possible economic and quality-of-life project ideas.  For more detail about our Regional Economic Recovery Research survey methodology, click here.

In a simple point-allocation exercise, we examined how rural and urban community members prioritize and make trade-offs among a set of community development project concepts.  The concepts chosen for this manipulation are all popular options both considered by and implemented in various community settings (see, for example, Hightree, et al, 2018). We employed very simple descriptions of these community development concepts in this survey, but the concepts were selected based on need expressed in literature as well as from comments obtained during qualitative exercises conducted during the planning phase for this survey. 

The allocation survey exercise asked the participant to “allocate 100 points across the following projects based on how well you think they would fit the needs of (insert resident’s community). Allocate more points to projects that you think are a better fit for (insert resident’s community). If a project does not have any fit, allocate 0 points to it. If only one project fits (insert resident’s community)’s needs, allocate all 100 points to that project.” The intervention options included the following: Renovating downtown buildings with retail shops and apartments, opening a community health center, deploying high-speed internet downtown, adding more computers and meeting spaces in the public library, and opening a co-working and startup working space for entrepreneurs.

The motivational context for the chosen concepts is discussed next.  The survey instrument did not provide information beyond the instructions for the personal evaluation exercise and the short description for each concept. Concepts were selected to roughly estimate projects of similar dollar amounts and schedules that might be addressable by a small town or rural community.

Renovating some downtown buildings as mixed-use facilities with retail shops and apartments

We have observed downtown renovation efforts in small towns in New Hampshire; Lufkin, TX; Sweetwater, TX; and Del Rio, TX, among others.  Across these communities, there has been a range of goals, development strategies, investment mechanisms, and project scopes, but all have shared an overarching goal of improving one of the most valued and valuable gathering spaces for the community.  The benefits of a town center feel even extend to urban neighborhoods. Specifically, Pendola & Gen (2008) demonstrated that urban neighborhoods with a “main street” are endowed with a higher sense of community that other urban and suburban neighborhood settings. Gibson, Zurcher, & Wisemiller (2020) show that direct public-private investment in downtowns of smaller towns has a spillover effect on additional private investment in renovations and maintenance in the downtown area.  Communities we visited also recognize the potential of revitalizing their downtown spaces after years of pressure from larger, “big box” retail options developed outside the town center where more businesses can cluster, where parking is more abundant, and well-known brands act as anchors to draw in consumer traffic.  Powe (2020) compares strategies that have been used successfully by communities to address these concerns, recommending that town centers be thought of as “complex adaptive places, their multi-functionality must be treasured and recognition given to the unpredictability/serendipity of opportunities emerging within them.”  Powe, Hart, & Bek (2009) recognize that town centers are also vital locations for community access to service in addition to being locations for consumption and leisure. 

Opening a community health center

The first community health centers (CHCs) were launched in 1965 during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. CHCs were designed to reduce health disparities experienced by racial and ethnic minorities, the uninsured, and the poor. They provide primary medical, dental, behavioral, and social services to medically underserved populations in medically underserved areas, including migrant and homeless populations that do not have the ability to pay. CHCs have received substantial bipartisan legislative funding to address a growing need for primary care (Adashi et al., 2010). Their presence in a county has been shown to lower the rate of hospitalization for ambulatory care sensitive conditions among older adults and in some cases, for working-age adults as well. (Probst et al., 2009) CHCs are models of community oriented primary care and especially serve populations facing language and culture barriers that may need additional translation, interpretation, and transportation services. CHCs are an opportunity for community development by leveraging local resources among critical access hospitals, rural health clinics, and educational institutions (Geiger, 2002; Samuels et al., 2008).

Deploying gigabit high-speed fiber broadband internet downtown.

The disparities in access to high-speed internet between urban and rural communities are widely discussed in the media (e.g., CNN’s America’s surprising breeding ground for inequality: The internet, May 17, 2020) and by researchers (e.g., Pew Research Center’s Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet).  These disparities are also central to the Biden Administration’s The American Jobs Plan (The White House, 2021) wherein high-speed broadband is considered a fundamental infrastructure along with roads, drinking water, and electricity.  Indeed, we have observed a small community in Texas deploy fiber along their main street as a central part of an economic development program intended to attract new business to their community.  Other communities have done the same, including Tullahoma, TN; Mount Washington, MA; and Wilson NC, just to name a few (Hanna & Mitchell, 2020). 

Adding more computers and meeting spaces in the public library.

The survey asked participants to consider allocating points toward the idea of “adding more computers and meeting spaces in the public library.” The value of a local public library to a community is well documented but difficult to quantify, with benefits ranging from public education, internet access, and free meeting space business organizations, self-employed residents, and small businesses to programs for job seekers, job training, and workforce development (Steffen, Lietzau, Lance, Rybin, & Molliconi, 2009; and Jarrett, 2012).

Early college credit and vocational programs for high school students.

The survey asked participants to consider allocating points toward early college credit and vocational programs for high school students. Burns, Ellegood, Bracy, Duncan, and Sweeney (2018) showed that such programs not only are popular with parents and students alike but also effective at preparing students for success at two-year and four-year colleges and reducing the time to degree attainment. Increasingly, even in rural areas where resources are strained, early college credit and vocational programs can be a sign to parents that a school district is vibrant and engaged with local employers. Conversations with community members in Roscoe, TX, exemplify this type of investment in a community’s commitment to its educational system.

Co-working and startup working space for entrepreneurs.

Co-working spaces (CWS) have become popular in urban areas but have also begun to appear in non-urban settings (Moriset, 2013). In non-urban settings, CWS is seen as a way to provide the physical and social infrastructure to motivate the creative economy, and entrepreneurship outside of urban centers (Bouncken et al., 2020). Especially with the social isolation procedures during the COVID-19 Pandemic, the possibilities and challenges of remote working became obvious in non-urban areas. As people sought access to the outdoors and large living areas, working remotely from a rural area became more attractive to creative and knowledge workers. However, the lack of high-speed internet connectivity in rural areas and the challenge of social distancing created a challenge for people who would want organic in-person interactions with other CWS peers (Tomaz et al., 2021).

Other.

Our intention with these six stimuli was to allow community members to think about their priorities across a set of community development concepts that while only broadly defined in our study represent initiatives that were selected to be roughly comparable in terms of their required implementation budget and schedule. However, these project concepts were selected to address a range of possible conflicting unmet needs across economic prosperity, quality of life, infrastructure, and social services.  Recognizing that these stimuli may not span the perceived priorities of all communities or all members of any specific community, we included a seventh option that allowed a survey participant to specify a community development project.

Results

Figure 1 shows the percentage of community members who prioritized a project concept by allocating any points to that project in the allocation exercise.  The results compare communities from West Texas, other rural communities in Texas, and urban communities in Texas.  (Note: while small town and rural community members were asked these questions in the context of their local community, urban community members were asked these questions in the context of their local neighborhood within the urban area in which they lived.)

Broadly, priorities across the various project ideas are similar for community members in the three regions, with the percentage of participants who allocated any points to a project being the highest for a downtown renovation and opening a community health center.  However, urban Texans were significantly more likely to include the health center project in their preferences than rural Texans.  Similarly, urban Texans prioritized deploying high-speed Internet in their neighborhood at higher rates than rural Texans.  Rural Texans were more likely to prioritize early college credit and vocational programs that urban Texans.

Community development project concepts that resonated less across all three regions include adding more computers and meeting spaces to the local public library and creating co-working and startup working spaces for entrepreneurs.  Both of these concepts were appealing to more participants in Urban Texas and West Texas than in the Rest of Rural Texas.  The library concept garnered substantially more interest among urban Texans than among community members in rural Texas.

While few participants included additional community development and quality-of-life project ideas overall, community members from West Texas were twice as likely as other participants to add other suggestions. Some of the community project concepts that were suggested outside of the ones that were offered to respondents included improving grocery store options, entertainment and event options, community programming and social welfare services, law enforcement services, and transportation and mobility options.

Figure 1.  Project Concept Interest

Note:  Figure 1 shows the percentage of participants by region who allocated points to each community development project concept.  These data represent the degree of interest, at any level, in each concept across all community members.

What do the priorities look like when viewed through the lens of how large of an allocation was made to the various project ideas?  Figure 2 summarizes the average allocation given that a project received any points.  These results, in part, follow the patterns in Figure 1, but point to the degree of trade-off made between the options in the survey.  Downtown renovation and opening a health center are now seen to garner more points than close alternatives like high-speed Internet.  And the priority among rural Texans for early college credit and vocational programs is also amplified by the average size of allocation.

It is worth noting that, among those who expressed interest, the allocation to the library and entrepreneurship concepts was substantially smaller than the allocations to other concepts.  Taken together, Figures 1 and 2 suggest that in addition to interest being lower for these two concepts, the desire to invest in these concepts among those with interest was also lower than the other concepts.

Figure 2.  Project Concept Allocation Priorities

Note:  Figure 2 shows the mean number of points allocated by participants to each community development project concept by region among those who allocated points to that project.  These data represent the extent or magnitude of interest in each concept among those who were interested in that concept.

These results show how interest in a range of community development project concepts is broadly similar across regions of Texas and how the priorities differ from region to region.  Overall, Texans have much in common when thinking about sustainable community development, and yet significant differences are also present that can allow local communities to develop customized strategies fit to their own priorities. 

On this point, our most recent theme on the importance of and satisfaction with various community assets introduced approaches from sustainable local economic development (SLED) and asset-based community development (ABCD) that allow policymakers and community members to join together in a participatory process to community development. Earlier in this series, we’ve also looked at how training and mentorship as well as broad social support can be connected to higher aspirations to start a company.  And we’ve looked at community perceptions about how much opportunity there is for a community to improve its economic sustainability and enhance its quality of life.  In fact, this last analysis also included an assessment of the degree to which community members felt that their community needed to improve in order to survive.

This theme adds to those considerations perceptions of how community members prioritize different community development projects.  Our next theme will begin to connect the dots between the data summarized in the previous themes to reveal more about how the COVID-19 pandemic, perceptions of community resilience, aspirations about entrepreneurship, and the satisfaction with a variety of community assets might inform decision making about investment priorities in community development projects.


References

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