Take a deep breath…b-r-e-a-t-h-e…. now exhale

As we enter 2023, there is growing evidence that the pandemic is finally waning to manageable levels in the US and much of the world.

Virus transmission and the loss of life are both relatively low this winter—even with elective mask practices and more normalized work, school, and social routines. Credit for this turnaround certainly goes to our innovative, agile pharmaceutical and healthcare industries as well as the federal government’s disaster mitigation efforts.

Consider the following -

  • During the peak of the US pandemic, there were almost 1,500,000 new COVID-19 cases being reported in a single day with a seven-day average of roughly 800,000 cases. Today, those numbers are approximately 123,000 and 58,000, respectively.

  • On January 20, 2021, we lost over 4,400 people to COVID-19. (You may remember the media observation that this daily death toll eclipsed the 911 tragedy.) While we are still losing too many people to the pandemic, this number today is roughly 300 persons—most in high-risk age and health cohorts.

  • In 2022, the largest US airlines achieved record revenues and strong net profits signaling a return to normal business and leisure travel demand.

  • Today, national health care agencies and officials are decidedly more concerned about the current seasonal strains of Influenza A and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) than COVID-19.

We are not done with the pandemic or, more accurately, the pandemic is not done with us. Optimistically, we have reined it in and have some semblance of control over it. That said, if COVID-19 has taught us anything it’s to expect the unexpected.

A case in point is China. In the face of growing civil unrest, China recently relaxed draconian lock down protocols and is now experiencing an explosion of new COVID-19 cases. Because of their government and media opacity, we will never know the full extent this outbreak. However, China’s pressing health, economic, and societal issues should not be our main concern. Because of China’s enormous population, this outbreak poses a very real threat for new virus variants and mutations that could, once again, impact the globe.

In response to China’s predicament, the US government has announced it is requiring anyone coming here from there to provide proof of a negative COVID test. Unfortunately, this policy will not keep the virus from our shores. People from China with the virus will invariably enter our country—directly or surreptitiously. The world is too small, and the virus is too smart and resilient. It has learned how to quickly propagate to survive.

That, eerily, is the unexpected part. We don’t know and probably won’t know what happens next in this SARS CoV-2 saga (or any future disaster saga) until it’s too late.

Even in the face of this uncertainty and the potential for renewed pandemic adversity, COVID-19 can provide life lessons for

economic development

and allied professionals.

Here are five to consider.

Lesson #1: Strong, established


provides resiliency

During the fever-pitched stages of COVID-19, there were two distinctly different groups of economic developers across North America.

Group A was cool and collected in the worst stages of the pandemic because they had deep, established relationships with businesses, relevant partner organizations and core stakeholders such as elected officials in their community. Most important, these relationships were forged and actively nurtured through longstanding


efforts that predated COVID-19.

Despite the fluid and chaotic nature of the virus, these relationships were now paying dividends—allowing Group A to strategically respond to the pandemic in a unified and deliberate way. The functional network they had forged through


facilitated dynamic internal and external communications by and between all stakeholders. Group A’s embedded relationships allowed them to understand the needs of businesses in the community through pandemic surveys, focus groups, business walks, and social media campaigns.

Group B was at the opposite end of the spectrum. They were frantic because even token pandemic response required the types of relationships they had never realized through a systematic and sustainable


program. In short, they didn’t really know businesses in their backyard and had no collaboration history with the partner organizations, elected officials, or community stakeholders.

For Group B, communication and communication protocols were problematic because there was no single organization at the helm of customer intake and management. The fever pitch of the pandemic put everyone in a silo’ed self-preservation mode. Therefore, there was no opportunity to naturally forge and nourish strong relationships with core stakeholders.
Think about the Group B predicament another way. The time to introduce yourself to the new neighbors and put a face to a name with your volunteer fire department is not when your new neighbor’s house is engulfed in flames and the volunteer fire department is on the scene frantically trying to extinguish the blaze while saving family pets.

During the height of the pandemic all stakeholders were putting their own fires out and operating in a zombie-like self-preservation mode. Main Street was shuttered. Stakeholders were awkwardly working from home. Elected officials were trying to understand and disseminate “moving target” health information. Federal, state, or local guidelines? Masks or no masks? Gloves? Airborne or surface transmission? Clorox or something else? Social distancing? Elevator protocols? Plastic barriers? Incubation period? Vaccines? Miracle cures?

A pandemic or a disaster of any kind is not the time to begin a


program and seek to build and fortify mission-critical stakeholder relationships.

The takeaway of this lesson is don’t wait until the next disaster to have an epiphany about


. Start your program now! For those of you who are secular in your beliefs about the importance of resident businesses in your community, think about this as a religious conversion.

Lesson #2: Rethink your resource team for disasters and resiliency

The composition of


resource providers (team members) in any community typically looks like this:


Early in the pandemic, it was clear that this conventional team roster—while pertinent for commerce—could not provide a sufficient response to a health-related natural disaster. COVID-19 necessitated a broader team roster that would include:

  • State and Local Health Departments

  • State and Local Emergency Management Departments

  • Local Hospitals and Clinics

  • The Red Cross

  • Small Business Administration (SBA)

And, because of widespread disruptions to both work and school, childcare centers would become an essential resource focal point.

Many communities also actively monitored The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and analogous resources for protocol and policy updates.

The takeaway of this lesson is your conventional team of resource providers for


is probably not equipped to handle disasters of any kind. Integrate into your

BRE team

the resources and resource providers who can handle all types of disasters. Think in terms of worst-case scenarios and build your network accordingly. Hint: It helps to stratify team members by first, second, third string as well as special teams.

Lesson 3: All businesses in your community matter

Economic developers tend to be clinical purists when it comes to business. We have historically placed a premium on those enterprises that create good paying jobs and make significant investment in our community. Exporters of goods and/or services are prized because they instigate fresh dollars into a trading area. And, bigger is always better—more jobs and more investment equate to a superior deal and enterprise.

Most state and local level incentive programs reinforce this dynamic—providing free or low-cost capital as quid pro quo for future jobs and investment. More recently, we have added pertinent variables like diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) and green/sustainability into our value equation, but chiefly remain fixated on, and slide back to, job numbers and capital investment. I would argue that capital investment is still a valid bellwether for our industry, but job creation has largely become an anachronism. More on this later.

Certainly, some businesses are more important to your economy than others for a variety of quantitative and qualitative reasons. But, as the ultimate global disaster, COVID-19 was not discerning—it had no geographic boundaries or specific industry focus. Businesses in every nook and cranny of the globe were adversely impacted. Early in the pandemic it was painfully obvious that every business in every community matters.
Also on display was the essential and fragile interdependencies between business enterprises everywhere in our global economy—especially on Main Street.

The takeaway of this lesson is you need to keep all businesses in your community on your radar screen and find creative ways to engage and assist them—even if they don’t meet your definition of a best customer. Think wholesale one-to-many or many-to-many versus retail one-on-one interactions.

Lesson 4: Things have changed…forever

The global economy is the ultimate brain. It’s the commerce equivalent of a highly complex and interrelated neural network. In short, there a lot of interdependent moving parts.

Continuing with the brain metaphor—the global economy was traumatized by the COVID-19 virus and parts of its “living cells and tissue” were destroyed. Like the human brain, the global economy has found ways to remap its neural networks to restore itself and normal functions.

The global supply chain is dead…long live the global supply chain

No masks…no gloves…no toilet paper…no paper towels…no sanitizers…no food. You all remember what supermarkets looked like during the peak of the pandemic. Our reliance on, and trust in, the just-in-time global supply chain was a fallacy.
The pandemic legacy has ushered in fervent reshoring and supply chain mapping, fortification and rationalization. Look no further than the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 for evidence of this. Every company—from Apple to General Motors to Raytheon Technologies— experienced pandemic-based production bottlenecks because of microprocessor shortages. (This industry is among most globalized in the world.) CHIPS acknowledges the universally important nature of this technology and seeks to reassert US dominance in, and control over, this microprocessor production though aggressive incentives, education, and adoption strategies—including those benefitting our military.

There will be longer range

economic development

opportunities galore for those who are paying attention. Just ask the folks in Arizona, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, or Texas about the CHIPS and Science Act and how it has facilitated chip fabrication investment in their states.

This type of reshoring movement and manufacturing renaissance is being replicated across all sectors of the economy to some extent. For many practical and financial reasons, global supply chain will always be a significant foundational element of our economy. However, in strategic, mission-critical industries supply chain is, after decades of zealous off shoring, thankfully being rationalized and re-domesticated.
People and the places they work

COVID-19 ushered in the widescale adoption and acceptance of remote work. Remote work has, in turn, propelled talent migration. These trends will ebb but generally remain with us, especially with a younger talent cohort working in pliable industries like technology, engineering, and business services.

The effects of remote work and related talent migration have already rocked the private sector. These factors will also reverberate with economic developers for years to come.

The remote office challenges decades long assumptions about what constitutes work. It disrupts downtown real estate markets and threatens all businesses who rely on people working in a physical office building anywhere.

For economic developers, questions and quandaries arise from remote work and talent migration.

Does talent still follow companies and their job opportunities or do companies and their job opportunities follow talent? This chicken and egg causality dilemma strongly suggests that, today, companies are following talent when making capital investments. Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Intel, Tesla and others are making significant investments in people places—those quality of life laden, talent rich communities that dot our nation.

Talent attraction cements the marriage between community development and quality of place initiatives with traditional

economic development

. The end game today is population growth, yes, but through the attraction of a young, diverse, educated and skilled workforce.

Thanks to remote work, even without capital investment, companies are reaching into communities far and wide to procure the right talent. This poses another question. If a California company such as Apple, hires a software engineer in Pittsburgh, PA for remote work in their Cupertino headquarters, where is that job created? If incentives are used, how do you reconcile this remote worker on your ledger? Earlier, I alluded to the obsolescence of using net new job creation in incentive programs. This remote work phenomenon illustrates the problem with this longstanding state and local stimulus metric.

Regardless of what you think or how you feel about remote work and talent migration, it’s clear that the

economic development

industry is being impacted in ways we could not imagine before the pandemic. Certainly, education, workforce availability, and up-skilling have always been on our radar screen.

Post COVID-19, these issues have become much more complicated and will force the

economic development

profession to jettison longstanding beliefs and change ingrained incentive programs, policies, and strategies.
Where have all the workers gone

Labor participation rates—especially among younger, able-bodied men—have been dropping consistently since the 1970’s. Through progressive productivity and technological enhancements, our economy made do with less labor input for many decades. That resiliency hit a wall during the pandemic and, to a lesser extent, continues today. A common refrain from the private-sector—in all sectors—is “Where have all the workers gone?” Data suggests that the emergence of remote ushered in a new societal focus on work/life balance. The quest for quality of life has spurred many people to trade their conventional jobs for gig economy work that offers inherent flexibility and self autonomy.

Before the pandemic, we all remember the ongoing debate about raising the national minimum wage to a “livable” $15 per hour. People from smaller markets argued that these wage rates were fine for cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York but didn’t align with the modest cost of living in flyover America. This small city diatribe has become a moot point because of basic COVID-19 driven supply & demand. Today, dishwashers in Knoxville, Tennessee make $19 per hour or the equivalent of $38,000 per year.

As we experience unrelenting workforce shortages and skyrocketing costs for that human capital, there are thousands of people—day in and out—amassing on our southern border for a chance to realize the American dream. The data is irrefutable. Immigrants work hard in essential jobs that most Americans are unwilling or unable to do. More important, within two generations, immigrants outperform the existing population in terms of educational attainment and entrepreneurship. (Look at the make up of Dreamers if you doubt this.) Immigrants represent the intrinsic

economic development


Let’s set aside political polarization and posturing about legal vs. illegal immigration and, after decades of hollow debate, demand from our elected officials real-world, bi-partisan immigration reform. This quandary ultimately boils down to basic math. We need them and they need us. The Ellis Island immigration model served us well in a slower world. Commerce, today, is moving at light speed today and we need a process that can fast track people into our society and the millions of jobs that are going unfilled.

The takeaway of this lesson is that America and our global partners face many pressing challenges in this post pandemic era. We can assure our leadership in the world by seeing these challenges, not as insurmountable obstacles, but as latent opportunities to reinvent ourselves. American preeminence is rooted in our entrepreneurial spirit and ability to turn lemons into lemonade.

Lesson Five: COVID-19 is our dress rehearsal for climate change

During its peak, COVID-19 took a savage toll on human life everywhere on the planet. There was no safe harbor for this ultimate disaster and disrupter. Sound familiar? The parallels between climate change and the pandemic are clear. Our response to COVID-19 should provide a roadmap for how we approach our climate challenge.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Acknowledge that we have a problem and smoke screening our culpability won’t make it go away. Our aggressive stance on the pandemic happened only after elected officials, the private-sector, and public deferred to scientists that COVID-19 was an imminent threat to humanity. Rinse and repeat for global warming.

  • Look to science and technology for answers on how to mitigate the problem. Our national pandemic response was rooted in science and technology. Big pharma was able to quickly conjure up a series of highly effective vaccines because we both encouraged and incentivized them to do so. Ironically, our Industrial Revolution got us into this predicament. Now, we need to lean on new industries and their technologies to get us out.

  • Ask and expect everyone to do their part. During the formative stages of the pandemic, people and businesses everywhere stepped up and accepted responsibility for viral transmission. Masking, gloves, social distancing, and hygiene protocols became the new normal. Nobody liked doing these things, but we survived—figuratively and literally. We all need to go green and adopt sustainability measures. It will help our planet and, ultimately, makes good economic sense.

  • Recognize that we don’t know what we don’t know. For the most part, the pandemic followed an unpredictable pathway. Early on, we recognized that we did not fully understand it or its trajectory. The full impact of global warming has yet to be seen. As Churchill said, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

  • Have faith in what, together, we can achieve. This goes back to the idea of adversity brings opportunity for those people who can see the bigger picture and view life through a glass-half-full lens.

The takeaway of this lesson is that climate change is THE existential threat facing us mankind. We need to embrace this fact and act accordingly. Time is of the essence. The biggest challenge to humanity will, in turn, provide almost limitless opportunities for those communities and companies that are willing to take this on.




economic development

professionals would agree that keeping and growing the existing businesses in your community is vitally important. Most would also agree that, done correctly, what we label

business retention and expansion

(BR&E) requires some sort of relationship between these private sector customers and us.

Despite our growing reliance on technology and all things digital, the relationship with these customers is more paramount today than ever before. A true relationship with your private sector customers is critical to understanding the “who, what, when and how” dynamics impacting these wealth and job generators.

We've long asserted that survey-centric BR&E is an anachronism in our warp speed, globally based economy. After all, the survivor companies from the last couple of recessions are smart and agile. They are appreciably leaner, meaner and faster than they were—even a few years ago.

These survivor companies don’t have time for inwardly focused

economic development

exercises that fail to provide VALUE to them. Being surveyed by a well meaning but misguided economic developer is—in no way, shape or form—a value proposition to the private sector.

Those companies that do agree to the modern day equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition will typically recognize the error of their ways about 2 minutes into the robotic interrogation process. From that point forward, they’ll provide only obligatory and cursory feedback to get the interaction with their local economic developer over as quickly as possible.

When we, as economic developers, engage in survey-centric BR&E, it creates a scorched earth policy that rarely provides a second act with our business constituents. More important, it leads to the creation of erroneous programs, policies and strategies that are built on flawed data about our customers.

But there is another problem with survey-driven BR&E. It provides the

economic development

professional with an

economic development

placebo effect. It implies that “touching” a customer every 12 to 18 to 24 months will be sufficient to create and, more importantly, nurture a relationship with them.

Think about the essence of personal relationships with your family, friends and coworkers. These relationships are fortified by the frequency of your interactions with these people. Typically, higher frequency translates into a stronger relationship.

As you already know, your best private sector firms are operating a warp speed today in response to their own markets, competitors and customers. Keeping up with them requires that we intersect and engage with them as much as possible. Seeing them every year or more doesn't allow us to understand them or foster the strategic relationship.

The rule here is simple. The more actual or potential value these companies provide to your community, the more frequent these interactions and engagements should be. These ongoing “touches” are impossible in a survey-driven BR&E framework.

Does this mean that the annual “deep dive” face-to-face meeting (NOT SURVEY) with your private sector customers is a thing of the past? Absolutely not. It still has a place—albeit a more limited one—in the continuity of touches with these businesses each year.

Think of your annual interactions with your private sector customers as building layers. The first layer is the annual deep dive meeting with the business. That will typically happen once every year.

Now, we need to fill in the blanks. To do this, we’ll need to use other tools like high value programs, business walks, focus groups and, of course, social media. The effective use of these tools in your

business retention and expansion

program mix will ultimately govern your success in 2015 and beyond.



The use of volunteer outreach for

business retention & expansion

(BR&E) is becoming more prevalent throughout North America as

economic development

organizations, chambers of commerce and workforce agencies strive to minimize costs, maximize market coverage and heighten their active engagement with key private sector constituents.

Volunteer (peer-to-peer or C-to-C Level) outreach presents unique challenges over traditional staff-based visitation for BR&E. Obviously, volunteers are not full time staff resources. Most are not well-versed in

economic development

. Ultimately, they are not accountable to us.
To minimize pitfalls when using volunteer outreach, follow these simple tips for success:

Engage an accountable staff member to “own” the entire volunteer outreach process. They will be responsible for selection and orientation of volunteers as well as ongoing management of the volunteer outreach effort. In many cases, this staff person will “play matchmaker” between specific volunteers and subject companies in the market area for a best fit and to avoid confidentiality issues.

Mandate extensive orientation and training for any volunteer who will meet and interact with their peers. Training should be more exhaustive than a “60 minute luncheon rah-rah session.” Training should include a framework for the entire visitation process, desired outcomes and reality-based deliverables. This includes things like brand name reinforcement, explanation of the purpose/intent of the BR&E program, description of participating organizations and the resources they represent as well as anticipated outcomes for the subject business and community as a whole. Typically, training should be conducted over two or three “building block” sessions. If you are doing things correctly, the list of willing volunteers will drop precipitously after each session. Many potential candidates will opt out of the program and process during the training phase. Don’t fear. The last men and women standing will be the true believers who will produce tangible results for your effort.

Intensive training needs aside, keep the overall outreach process simple and straightforward. See above…volunteers are not full time resources, well versed in

economic development

or accountable to us. Make it easy for them to plug into your framework by following the KISS principle. Less is more here. Make sure that you compartmentalize them as part of the overall BR&E program.

Prohibit volunteer outreach people from using the BR&E program as a marketing forum to sell their wares to other businesses in the trading area. The intent of the outreach initiative must be pure and external—focused on the subject business and community as a whole. Similarly, for membership organizations, the volunteer outreach program should not be a thinly veiled membership drive. The best way to lose wholesale credibility with your business community is to use BR&E as a means to achieve membership objectives. Keep the BR&E agenda and program completely separate from the professional sales goals of volunteer outreach people and your organization’s financial endgame.

Pair up two volunteers or team up a volunteer with an economic developer to gain synergies. A fluid conversation with business people in your community is organic and will invariably start and end in different places with each and every BR&E visit. Because volunteers are not professional economic developers, they won’t be able to offer relevant feedback and assistance in many situations. Two heads are better than one—to understand the subject business and offer reasonable paths forward. If an

economic development

staff person is available for tag team outreach, all bases will be covered.

Learn from success and failure. Get ongoing, active feedback from volunteers and, more importantly, subject companies about what is working and what isn’t. Use that information to refine your program, approach and hone orientation and training for existing and new volunteers. Make sure to recognize and even incentivize your best volunteers. Think about everything from social media to industry dinners as appropriate vehicles for shout outs to your top performers.

Because volunteers have real day jobs you can expect a constant churn of them with your BR&E efforts. To facilitate the transition, enlist and engage your best volunteers to help orient and train new ones. After all, there is no substitute for experience.