How to Develop a Strategic Economic Development Plan

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

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

But how do you create a strategic economic development plan? Here, we present five steps to developing a plan that is right for you; one that will lay the foundation for long-term success. The graphic below offers a snapshot of each step. Below that, we examine them in detail while presenting actionable insight.

Acceptance: You need a formal economic development strategy.

Whether you lack a formal strategy or are seeking to update an outdated plan, the first and most important step is recognizing the need and embracing responsibility.


Assemble a team of 6-12 key stakeholders.

A dynamic plan requires a dynamic team. Your list of potential members should consider local elected officials, non-profits and representatives of the business community, to name a few.


Develop your plan!

Create a straightforward and working plan with key milestones. At minimum, your economic development plan should include a vision, mission, goals, strategies and actions.


Implement your plan.

Implementation of your 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.


Never. Stop. Updating.

Continuously evaluate your plan to ensure your economic growth and the plan itself remain consistent with the vision, mission and goals you’ve established.


1. Acceptance: You need a formal economic development strategy.

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

  • 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 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.


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. But “key” isn’t used loosely here; each player on your team should have a distinct role. In addition, a dynamic plan requires a dynamic team. Your list of potential representatives should consider:

  • 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

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 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.

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 below, here is an example framework: vision, mission, goals, strategies and actions.

Economic Development Plan Framework

Economic Development Plan Framework
At minimum, your plan should include these five items.

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.

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 bike 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 hi-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.

Keep in mind that your goal is to be the first in your area to develop an economic niche.


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 tool 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.

In brief, the headline 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

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