This week, people from all over the Methow are being invited to gather and talk about economic development possibilities for the valley. In two public meetings sponsored jointly by the Twisp and Winthrop chambers of commerce, residents are being asked to imagine what the valley might look like if we can come up with a workable economic development plan, and how we might devise and pursue such a thing.
Some folks might wonder, with good reason, what would that imply?
There’s no ready answer. As a concept, economic development is kind of like world peace. Everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but try getting a room full of people together to agree on what it means.
Like talking about the weather, communities, states and nations just can’t stop talking about economic development because they think it’s a great thing to have or do or ponder. In the political arena, where economic development spends much of its time, its definition has become so mushy and situational that it can be used to encompass almost anything — or nothing at all.
And in some quarters, economic development (let’s not call it ED, which has another unfortunately popular commercial usage that I suspect most men are tired of hearing about) isn’t all that popular because it’s been misused, corrupted, co-opted, misunderstood or has utterly failed.
For a long time, economic development was often little more than a desperate brawl among states and communities to lure away jobs from one another — a zero-sum game that often came laden with extraordinary public subsidies that rendered the cost-benefit ratio indefensible. You paid what per job out of the public coffers, or agreed to forego how much in taxes, or made what regulatory concessions, to get that company here? And the rest of us are not going to be allowed anywhere near that trough?
That’s why economic development has something of a bad rep — it’s too easily seen (thanks to some ghastly examples) as a con game that promises jobs and prosperity at the expense of pricey
tradeoffs. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Over time, communities that have a genuine interest and need for meaningful economic development whose benefits are shared and sustainable have shifted away from a “whose-company-can-we-steal-by-giving-away-the-kingdom” approach and toward a from-the-ground-up strategy: What can we as a community do to not only keep our existing economic base viable, but also create conditions that are attractive to entrepreneurs, start-ups and companies that may want to change locations for less-gratuitous reasons?
That’s what this week’s meetings are fundamentally about, beginning with an assessment of what we already have in place that we can build on to answer the question: “What does a healthy and resilient Methow Valley economy look like and how can we achieve it?” Discussion topics include what’s missing that would add to our economic vitality; what kinds of new businesses could succeed here; what do existing local businesses need to succeed; and what specifically could help Twisp and Winthrop thrive? The first community meeting was Tuesday; the next is on Thursday (May 28) at the Winthrop Barn from 6-8 p.m., with the same discussion format.
Of course, there will always be differences of opinion about what economic development should look like, and those differences can be painfully divisive. The Methow Valley is witness to that. It’s hard for many of us to imagine the valley with a massive ski resort and sprawling development at the Mazama end. But if the resort was here, by now it might be hard to imagine the valley without it.
Economic development can occur on simultaneous, mutually beneficial fronts. The Washington State Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) recently awarded the Town of Twisp a $50,000 grant to come up with a business revitalization plan, which sounds a lot like economic development. According to a CERB press release, the plan “will include a feasibility and marketing study to enhance business visibility, to encourage economic development and to attract tourism to the Town of Twisp.” So OK, there it is, mid-sentence but prominent.
This week’s meetings are a starting point in defining what economic development means for the valley. Ultimately, it will be what we make it.