Engaging & Educating About Economic Development: Lessons from FOCUS Greater Syracuse

This past September I had the opportunity to be part of an effort by FOCUS Greater Syracuse. Myself, along with fellow consultant Christopher Steele of Investment Consulting Associates were the kickoff presenters and panelists for the FOCUS Greater Syracuse Citizens Academy, which sponsored a series of discussions in the region around economic development.


My presentation was meant to provide a base level understanding of economic development and emerging trends. I started with “What is economic development?”  This can be a complex question for which I like to provide a simple answer: 

Economic Development is planning, organizing, and acting to support the economy.  We often think of it in terms of common end goals such as job stability and creation, tax base stability and growth, diversification of the economy and tax base, and wealth creation. 



Economic Development is typically supported through multiple tools employed within continuous cycles of strategic planning (i.e. planning and organizing, implementation and assessment, and back to planning).  The typical economic developer’s toolbox includes:

  • Business retention and expansion
  • Business attraction
  • Support for global trade and foreign investment
  • Workforce development
  • Business technical assistance including financing
  • Innovation and entrepreneurial support
  • Supporting quality of place/place-based development
  • Community development


However, and most importantly, more than just goals and tools, economic development operates within a dynamic system of people, organizations, and networks. Within this system, no one person or organization controls all the resources or knowledge. Therefore, key competencies include fostering interactions, relationships, communications, and collaboration. I like to summarize this as follows:

The strength of an economy depends on not only what assets it has, but how those assets connect and interact internally and externally to build trust within formal and informal networks. This in turn creates conditions which enable innovation, entrepreneurship, and investment.



While economic development and planning professionals as well as policymakers are important for this system, achieving outcomes that improve and sustain communities and regions requires well informed and engaged citizens. This is where FOCUS Greater Syracuse comes in. Their initiative entitled Citizens Academy is designed to provide a means for building citizen understanding and capacity for economic and community development. More clearly stated:

“FOCUS Greater Syracuse in partnership with University College of Syracuse University, Onondaga County, and the City of Syracuse, offers 35 selected applicants an 8-week interactive course of study on how local governments are organized and how services are funded and delivered. This national award-winning program is a way to learn about citizen involvement through an integrated approach to economic vitality, social equity and a healthy environment. Class members meet with a panel of the people who work on these topics day-to-day to hear about their challenges and opportunities and then to participate in an open question and answer session.”  http://www.focussyracuse.org/citizens-academy/


This program is unique in that it is an annual, committed, and purposeful effort to create better understanding of economic development and to get people talking about what it means, why it is important, and how the region can create opportunities for communities, residents, businesses, and workers. I was there to help citizens learn about economic development, but in the process learned a great deal:

  • Without trust, meaningful collaboration will be elusive – trust enables give and take and even risk taking
  • Being informed and engaged is critical to building trust
  • People are more alike than different in their hopes and dreams for their communities
  • Spending time and effort on building this capacity in communities and regions will save time and resources down the road.  It will also help communities and regions get behind big ideas and initiatives.


The slide-deck from my portion of the presentation is provided below, along with a link to the audio.


Click here to hear the audio.



Image Credit: FOCUS Greater Syracuse

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