How to Develop a Strategic Economic Development Plan

Strategic economic development plans are integral to achieving measurable, sustainable economic growth and quality of place. 

By putting a formal plan in place, communities can take control of their economic development, set clear and attainable economic development objectives, and design policies and programs to achieve them. Without a plan, your economic future is reactive at best. At worst, it’s in the hands of others – especially in this time of uncertainty. 

But how do you create a strategic economic development plan? Where should you begin? How can you make sure your plan is actionable? Here are five steps to developing a plan that is right for you, one that will lay the foundation for long-term economic viability.

1. Accept that you need a formal economic development strategy.

Economic development plans are carefully and strategically built frameworks. Long-term in scope, they provide a pathway that communities can follow to overcome diverse, often challenging situations. They can help you account for the following if created the right way:

  • Rapid population growth or decline
  • Booming economy or stagnation
  • Job creation or retention issues
  • Economic stability in an unpredictable federal and/or global market
  • Public and private partnerships and investment
  • Human resource development, education and training
  • Land use and sustainable housing growth
  • Commercial and industry stock
  • Social, recreational, arts and cultural development

The creation of a strategic economic development plan is often led by an economic development professional and typically reviewed on a yearly basis. Most plans are recreated entirely every 3-5 years (often sooner given the pace of change and uncertainty in today’s economy) to ensure they align with ever-changing needs. Step five below digs deeper on the importance of continuous evaluation.

Whether you lack a formal strategy or are seeking to update an outdated plan, you’ve accepted the need and embraced responsibility. This is the first and most important step.

RELATED CONTENT: 10 WAYS TO PRIORITIZE YOUR CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT PLAN DURING ECONOMIC UNCERTAINTY

2. Assemble a team of 6-12 key stakeholders.

Next, you need to create a team of key stakeholders who are committed to developing a strategic plan. “Key” isn’t used loosely here; each member should have a distinct role not only within your community but on the team. In addition, a dynamic plan requires a dynamic team. Your list of potential representatives should consider the following types of individuals:

  • Influential local elected officials
  • Local economic development organization (LEDO) representatives
  • Leaders within the business community
  • Resident members
  • Non-profit agencies
  • Local churches or places of worship
  • A member of a local or regional workforce development office
6-12 Key Stakeholders
Smaller communities likely warrant smaller teams, and vice versa. Having a distinct role for each member will organically uncover the right size for your project.

The size of your community will likely dictate the size of your team. But, as a general rule, your team should comprise between 6-12 members. Fewer than six and you might lack the diversity needed to approach your plan from a number of important angles. More than 12 and you might end up with too many voices to reach an amicable consensus ("too many cooks in the kitchen").

3. Develop your plan!

A strategic economic development plan can be complex, but it’s important to keep things as simple and straightforward as possible. The most successful plans are understandable to your key stakeholders and economic development officials. Ultimately, the success of your economic development plan hinges on the activities, investments and programs you have in place to, for example, increase employment and job quality, improve quality of life for today and in the long term, and boost the overall business climate.

Economic Development Plan Framework

Economic Development Plan Framework
At minimum, your economic development plan's framework should include these items. "Processes" include policies, programs and projects. "Methods" include approach (project management team), benchmarking, budgeting and financing. Contact Dan directly (dbotich@sehinc.com) to dig deeper into what your plan should entail!

Once you have a team in place and an understanding of the initiatives needed to create sustainable economic development, it’s time to create your plan. Begin by creating a working, fluid plan with key milestones. Your milestones should include tasks, deadlines and costs for completion and implementation. As shown above, here is an example framework: vision, mission, goals, strategies and actions.

As you create your plan, it’s important to keep in mind these six factors:

  1. Weigh economic and demographic data from research, analysis and forecasting – similar to an investor in the stock market.
     
  2. Rely on the natural assets of your community in order to develop realistic goals for economic development.
     
  3. Make sure you know your community as a product – this includes its past, present and forecasted future.
     
  4. Recognize your strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and potential threats.
     
  5. Gain an understanding of future market trends and industry advances.
     
  6. Combine your research and analysis with public input and dialogue. Remember, this is a community effort; success requires buy-in, support and feedback from the people you serve.
General rule of thumb: You should be able to present your vision in 30-45 minutes. Why so brief? This is the typical amount of time available at Chamber, Rotary and similar business meetings. Longer presentations can be tailored to individual organizations or forums as necessary, but the more straightforward your presentation the more likely your audience is to understand and engage.

4. Implement your plan.

Much like any capital improvement plan, implementation of your economic development plan should be based on key projects and programs upcoming or in the works. Prioritize by short-, medium- and long-term goals, and consider costs associated with implementation. Implementation (i.e., “action”) must be a standalone chapter or section within your plan document.

Short-term, quick-win programs might include:

  • Creating a list of all commercial, office and industrial businesses within your community.
     
  • Establishing an annual local economic development report card to monitor and track economic growth.
     
  • Meeting with the top-10 employers in the community to learn past, present and forecasted happenings.
bike trails
Recreational infrastructure like walking and biking trails can be impactful, long-term economic supporters

Long-term, strategic programs might include:

  • Identifying and developing an area for industrial development.
     
  • Improving local educational programs to meet the employment needs of a targeted industry.
     
  • Cultivating social, cultural, arts and/or recreational infrastructure or programs – such as walking and biking trails, nature conservation areas and other cultural amenities to supplement community programming.
     
  • Developing technology-based or application-based districts for individuals in order to develop high-tech tools or computer applications. This is an important and emerging industry in our global economy; it takes into account all spin-off or supplemental development associated with this type of niche district.

Your ultimate goal is to be the first in your area to develop an economic niche.

RELATED CONTENT: IGNITING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT THROUGH GREEN ALLEYS AND ALLEYWAY RENOVATION

5. Never. Stop. Updating.

Truly strategic economic development plans are dynamic and fluid. It’s unwise to “set it and forget it.” Use your annual local economic development report card or other progress-monitoring tools to ensure that economic growth and your plan remain consistent with the vision, mission and goals you’ve established. Lastly, review your plan for modifications on a regular basis – always weighing new development, evolving economic trends and emerging technologies.

Especially in light of the current economy, many unknowns and the pandemic, the heading for this section says it all: never stop updating. Continuously evaluate your plan and your progress. This is the best way to make sure your plan aligns with the needs and goals of your community.

About the Author

Dan Botich

Dan Botich is a senior economic development professional with SEH of Indiana and leader of the SEH economic development team in Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. Contact Dan for additional insight into how to create a strategic economic development plan. Contact Dan

We’re hiring! Join our team.

At SEH, our people define us. You are the reason we lead the industry. Explore open positions, our culture and what “100% employee-owned” means for your career. Connect with your Recruitement Team.

Your destination for industry news and insight.

Browse our library of eBooks, case studies, infographics and more. Available for free download, these tools tackle your most pressing project challenges.