Guidebook for growth

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Print this page by Robert Burke

Any place that hopes to match Fairfax County’s economic successes now has some expert advice to guide it. Gerald Gordon, the president and CEO of the county’s Economic Development Authority, has written a book, “The Formula for Economic Growth on Main Street America.”

Right off, though, Gordon makes an admission. “Despite the title there really is no formula for ensuring growth will come,” he says. You simply can’t force economic winds to blow in your direction. “But there are clearly things that if you do or fail to do … you will fail.”

So his tips on what not to do are especially important. For example, don’t pretend to be something you aren’t by going after industries that your locality can’t legitimately support. “Everybody wants to attract technology businesses, and you can’t do that unless you have other tech businesses and the labor force” and a decent college or university nearby, Gordon says. Instead, take small steps: start developing those assets and work on attracting a few smaller businesses in a targeted sector.

Communities can become more appealing sites for a particular sector with good planning and some investment, and then they need to be patient. That point leads to another hurdle for localities: keeping elected officials from knocking the plan off track by taking a short-term view and pushing too fast. “They’ve got to run for re-election, and they know they’ve got to have some demonstrable results,” he says.

An even tougher scenario is an elected leadership that keeps changing course. “You look at communities that have a pro-business chairman and they last one term, and then you have an anti-business chairman and they last one term,” he says. “Businesses don’t want to be in that environment.”
Gordon offers some suggestions of things that localities should do:
• Diversify the local economy;
• Emphasize quality-of-life advantages;
• Find out what suppliers and other support the business prospects need;
• And build bridges between the public and private sectors, getting them to see their common interests.

“In many communities you’ll find that those basic strategic partnerships haven’t really evolved yet,” he says

Gordon, who has worked for the Fairfax Economic Development Authority since 1983, holds a doctorate in international economics from Catholic University. He has written other books and articles on issues such as strategic planning and leadership. He also served as a consultant for cities and states in the U.S. and abroad. During his tenure at the EDA, the county’s economy has grown from 243,000 jobs to more than 600,000 today.

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