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Advice From 3 Former Mayors: Grow Your Own Entrepreneurs

More and more cities are coming to understand that the key to developing their economies is the job-creation assets they already have.

From left to right: Former Mayors Richard Berry of, Betsy Hodges of and Mark Stodola of Little Rock, Ark.
(FlickrCC/AVQ CVB, Lisa Miller; Facebook/Mark Stodola)
The outpouring of interest and excitement over Amazon's competitive selection process for its second headquarters last year was unprecedented, as nearly 240 communities competed for the online retail giant's promise of 50,000 new jobs. But the process also renewed longstanding criticism of states' and local governments' economic development strategies, in particular the use of tax and other incentives to lure new employers.

Win or lose, though, the Amazon chase did do cities a service. It brought to light something more fundamental to generating new economic development and opportunity than even landing the next big thing: their own assets. The Amazon competition showed that there is no lack of people, passion, creativity and talent to try to make those unique assets shine.

We need a new model for economic development that supports, as the primary objective, using local resources to grow businesses from within a community, not one that first looks to the outside to import them. An elemental focus on entrepreneurship is a sustainable path of economic success for cities, year after year, decade after decade. But while new and young businesses are the primary source of job creation across the country, our current economic development policies rarely treat them this way.

Mayors are in a unique position to lead the charge to develop new policies that focus primarily on nurturing local job creators. Entrepreneurs and mayors share a lot in common. They are, first and foremost, problem-solvers who understand how to best maximize limited resources. In place after place, whether it's economic development, climate change, education reform, gender equity or civil rights, mayors are the leading agents of cutting-edge social and economic policies.

We served as the mayors of Albuquerque, Minneapolis and Little Rock, Ark., through both good economic times and the worst economic period and recession since the Great Depression. Entrepreneurship was key to helping lift back up our local economies. In Albuquerque, a public-private partnership led to the creation of Innovate Albuquerque, a seven-acre innovation district that is now home to the University of New Mexico's Innovation Academy, university students, startup companies and tech-transfer teams from three of the state's national laboratories. Entrepreneurs in Minneapolis reinvigorated the historic commercial corridors of East Lake Street and Lowry Avenue, bringing them back to life. In Little Rock, a once-deserted Main Street is now bustling with restaurants, art galleries, a professional theater and a technology corridor that is home to dozens of entrepreneurs.

Mayors looking to replicate successes like those have plenty of useful outside resources at their disposal, from think tanks to academia to philanthropy. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, for example, is heavily invested in supporting both mayors and entrepreneurs. Its annual Mayors Conference on Entrepreneurship brings together mayors, their staffs, entrepreneurs and policy experts. This year's conference, taking place in Kansas City May 20-22, will be especially focused on how to help mayors and their communities grow their own entrepreneurs.

The Mayors Conference uses a hands-on approach, giving mayors and their staffs the opportunity to work in small, multi-jurisdictional groups and engage with material in a deeper and more intensive format tailored specifically for cities' top leaders and the challenges they face. Mayors will leave with deeper understanding of policies and practices that can achieve demonstrable success, and they will receive continuing technical assistance and support from the staff at the National League of Cities throughout the year.

The availability of opportunities for mayors to work with peers and experts underscores what so many communities learned from vying for the Amazon bonanza: that they already possess the tool that matters most to be successful -- people. Local people are the most powerful economic development resource we can invest in. If we can put the level of energy and focus that the Amazon pursuit evoked into growing our own job creators, the possibilities are greater than we can imagine.

A former mayor of Albuquerque
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