Speaker says economic development changing

Communities across the U.S. need to change their approach to economic development or be left behind, an economic development expert said Thursday.

There are numerous reasons for the change, including more competition and an economy that is growing slowly, said Mark Lautman, who served as the keynote speaker at the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner. But the biggest problem is demographics, as baby boomers prepare to retire, and there are too few qualified younger workers to take over their jobs.

“It’s not just whether you can attract industries,” Lautman said. “It’s what can you do to attract millennials and keep them here.”

Lautman is the author of “When the Boomers Bail, How Demographics will Sort Communities into Winners and Losers.” He is also founding director of the Community Economic Lab, a private non-profit entity that promotes new approaches to economic development.

Cities like Springfield that have already seen population loss will face a difficult challenge as competition grows for those workers, he said. He compared the competition as a fight against a fatal illness, in which only about 20 percent of cities will fare well while the other 80 percent struggle. Communities need to be creative and develop a comprehensive plan to attract a workforce and retain jobs, he said.

Most cities are underestimating the challenge, he said, and will end up struggling to attract jobs. To combat that, he said, cities and counties need to build a large group of diverse community members, develop a strategic plan and create a consensus on how the community should move forward. The days in which a handful of economic development members and a few business owners performed those duties are over, Lautman said.

“There aren’t five people who are going to figure it out,” Lautman said. “It’s too big a problem.”

Lautman will spend several days in Springfield talking to local community leaders, said Horton Hobbs, vice president of the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

Springfield is ahead of many communities because it has resources like local universities as well as good transportation and a quality parks system, Lautman said. But that likely won’t be enough in the long term.

“There are a lot of things to be hopeful and optimistic about,” Lautman said. “The question is, is what you’re doing anywhere near enough, and it isn’t.”

Bob Warren, of Hauck Brothers Heating and Cooling, won the chamber’s Lifetime Achievement award. Former congressman Dave Hobson was honored with the chamber’s Big Dreamer award, while Lee’s Famous Recipe was named Restaurant of the Year. Eric Powell was named Ambassador of the Year while the MacCray Company was named Small Business of the Year. Speedway LLC. was named Business of the Year.

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