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Posted on Sep 10, 2015

If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research

By Jonathan Smith, EDC

Quincy, Wash.; Hamilton, Mont.; Baker City, Ore.; Madras, Ore.; and Othello, Wash. To visit these five communities, one after the other, requires a trip of more than 1,000 miles across four states with about 24 hours spent behind the wheel. Aside from sightseeing, why would someone make such trip?
Economic development research, of course.
Economic development is the process of improving the economic well-being of a community through efforts that entail job creation, job retention, tax base enhancements and quality of life. A wide variety of activities contribute to this effort including infrastructure, worker training programs, downtown development, entrepreneurship, transportation, exporting, small business development, tourism and more.
The activities one community undertakes may not necessarily work for another community. For example, downtown development means very different things for the cities of Chicago and Quincy. Some of the basic principles will be the same, but the needs and approaches to economic development will likely be very different for these two communities. A best practice in Chicago might not work to improve economic well-being in Quincy.
But what if we could identify other communities that were similar to Quincy across a wide range of demographic and economic characteristics? What could we learn by comparing Quincy to other cities of the same population, educational background, median age, income levels and housing stock?
Cities like Hamilton, Mont.; Baker City, Ore.; Madras, Ore.; and Othello.
We learn that although Quincy and Hamilton have the same number of people living within a 30-minute drive time of their downtowns, Hamilton has twice as many businesses. We learn that although Madras has less manufacturing companies than Quincy, it also has more retail stores. We learn that almost twice as many dollars are spent in Quincy as compared to Baker City, even though the two cities have similar populations and incomes. We learn that despite being similar in virtually every other way, Othello has three times more sales in furniture and home furnishings than Quincy.
So what does all this information mean and what do we do with it? There is no single right answer and many of the things learned raise even further questions. Why does Hamilton have so many more businesses? Why does Madras have more retail? Why are more dollars spent in Quincy than Baker City? If Othello sells three times the furniture and home furnishings as Quincy, does this mean that a furniture store could be successful in Quincy? What are the main furniture lines sold in Othello, and would they be a fit for Quincy?
As Albert Einstein once said, “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”
This information serves as the launching pad for identifying economic development opportunities that may have been previously overlooked. By comparing and contrasting our community with others we can learn where we have been successful and pinpoint opportunities we haven’t yet taken advantage of.
This isn’t the silver bullet for all economic development needs, but it is another tool that can be used to achieve the goal of improving the economic well-being of our communities.
Jonathan Smith is the executive director of the Grant County Economic Development Council.