WHICH COMES FIRST — INFRASTRUCTURE OR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT?

SYNOPSIS

This question plagues many small to medium-sized communities across the United States. It stems from the debate about which process should be prioritized as a catalyst for change within a community. Put simply, what do we need to do first (infrastructure or economic development) to kick-start the sort of change that will make our communities the way we want them to be?

The quick answer is that there is not a standard answer — no ‘one size fits all’. Each community is unique. While many communities have similar traits, such as population, income, density, etc., each has residents and visitors who have specific needs and desires. It is these needs and desires that will influence the answer to that common question: Which Comes First, Infrastructure or Economic Development? In short, each community will have its own reasons for deciding where to start.

BACKGROUND

Knowing that there are not cookie cutter answers doesn’t mean we can’t help a community determine the best process to meet local goals.   As a way of helping communities answer this question, Downtown Redevelopment Services offers a detailed set of questions that can be used to guide a community to the right answer for them. The process is called “guided exploration.” This term is standard in the education or instructional fields, where it is intended to present students or individuals with a series of specific questions or prompts to help them develop set of answers or goals based upon self-exploration of available resources. Before we introduce the questions for the guided exploration process, let’s outline a few of the key terms and how they will be used in this brief article:


  1. “Infrastructure” refers to both surface and subsurface infrastructure — what goes on the ground and what goes beneath it. The term encompasses all necessary or desirable systems that provide a valuable service or amenity to local residents. Examples of infrastructure include:
    1. Drinking water system
    2. Curbs and gutters 
    3. Sanitary sewers
    4. Sidewalks
    5. Storm sewers.
  2. “Economic development” is a term that communities loosely use to refer to any private development within the community that provides an improvement to the community, fiscal or otherwise.
  3. “Common community goals” are a set of unified community goals or visions that are derived from a detailed community-input campaign. These goals are specific, action oriented, and measurable. They create an actionable framework for implementation.


DIRECTED APPROACH QUESTIONS

These are designed to guide a community, including local residents and elected officials, through a community transformation decision-making process. They are critical to helping shift the community from the broad picture to a narrow or specific set of tasks or priorities.

The list of questions below is broken down into three categories: Community Wide, Corridor Overview, and Parcel Specific. These categories are provided to outline a standard process that will follow the broad-to-specific questioning approach.

It is through using these questions that your community can start discussions about which method of community revitalization, or mixture of methods, will provide the best return on investment for your community. While there is not a specified path or required set of questions, the sample questions below will help municipal or Main Street staff provide a focus for their community-revitalization efforts. 

The above questions are merely suggestions. They can be tailored to help your community through the guided exploration process.

PROCESS AND SAMPLE FLOW CHART

While the above questions are often seen in a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat (SWOT) analysis, the manner in which they are asked, answered, and reviewed will guide community residents and elected officials to answer the question: which comes first — infrastructure or economic development?

This process guides the community through a series of broad to specific questions, helping to better frame and define parameters for the discussion of infrastructure or economic development. By removing the extraneous or potentially less important questions, participants are able to move expeditiously to create a clear vision for their community along with the necessary steps to fulfill that vision.

This process has no set path to meet a predetermined point. It can often take a very indirect route. Therefore, Downtown Redevelopment Services is a proponent of using the stepping-stone method for question review. Illustrated below is a sample of the stepping-stone process:

MORE SPECIFIED DIRECTION

At the end of these questions, the community should be able to break down their answers into one of three categories (i.e. “determinations”):

Infrastructure is needed to support economic development – This determination is inferring that in this community future economic development is being hindered through:

Lack of necessary resources
Lack of ability to reach or connect with amenities
Inadequate space for further private sector development.

Economic development is necessary to meet the demands of the community – This determination is documenting that in this community local residents do not identify a lack of infrastructure or resources but a lack of amenities or assets that attract people to the defined area in question. This determination can be verified through a detailed market analysis to discover the “gaps” in services that may need to be provided.
Both infrastructure and economic development are required – This determination is stating that this community lacks necessary infrastructure systems, access, assets, and amenities. This condition is rare as most municipalities have either services or assets, but it can happen in communities that have experienced economic hardship and a marked drop in population.

While the three determinations listed above are typical for communities, do not despair if your community does not fit neatly into one of these categories. In community and downtown planning there are no “guaranteed” answers.

CONCLUSION

We hope that this article has been informative and that you will be able to use this process to prepare catalysts for change in your community. While the above process is not foolproof and may not provide definitive answers for your community, it is our hope that it will be able to provide a more tailored and attainable revitalization process.

If you are using this process within your community, or will be in the near future, and would like some feedback, Downtown Redevelopment Services is always happy to discuss the process and provide pointers at no cost to your community. 

The above questions are merely suggestions. They can be tailored to help your community through the guided exploration process.

PROCESS AND SAMPLE FLOW CHART

While the above questions are often seen in a Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat (SWOT) analysis, the manner in which they are asked, answered, and reviewed will guide community residents and elected officials to answer the question: which comes first — infrastructure or economic development?

This process guides the community through a series of broad to specific questions, helping to better frame and define parameters for the discussion of infrastructure or economic development. By removing the extraneous or potentially less important questions, participants are able to move expeditiously to create a clear vision for their community along with the necessary steps to fulfill that vision.

This process has no set path to meet a predetermined point. It can often take a very indirect route. Therefore, Downtown Redevelopment Services is a proponent of using the stepping-stone method for question review. Illustrated below is a sample of the stepping-stone process: