Local Economic Development professionals on how to incentivize the private sector

June 15, 2011

This is a continuation of my last post: Reflections on the IEDC Conference

I attended the roundtable “How effective are today’s incentives in tomorrow worlds?”. There were 9 roundtables simultaneously and this was the largest. It had around 25 people, all from local governments (no State). It was remarkably directed by a gray haired facilitator. I loved the way he facilitated the conversation and asked interesting questions. Now I will transcribe my notes:

Facilitator: Who has free land for potential new comers? 6 out of 28 people.
Who would like to have it? 5 raise their hand.

Who has cash incentives? The majority. In the last 10 years, they have given 500,000$, 2million and one guy said 10 million.

Facilitator: They looked at how much money they have given in the last years, and how much they have collected. They have only gave 600,000$, but that they have got 16 million dollars in tax revenues. “A pretty good return of investment”. (later he changed to over 10 million dollars, so I’m not sure about the figure).

Most of the incentives (which can be tax abatement or other types of support – it is not always cash), is usually done over 3 years. Some said in 7 years or 10.

Usually money is for potential incomers, but sometimes they would give money if a company is planning to leave, and or they have an offer on the table from another place.

They all offer workforce training programs.

They all have guidelines, that is no strict policies (check list)

Tax benefits were usually based on investment, but in today’s economy the main thing is jobs.

They know big companies receive training to get governments money. They know the lingo, etc.

But they know that companies will hardly leave only because of the money. They also know that sometimes they just want attention, not money. “If they call you to complain about traffic, for example, it was advised not to excuse yourself by saying that this is not your department! You have to be the facilitator and help the firms!” (I loved that answer).

One Mayor of a small city in Milwaukee: “I was impressed yesterday, about what the keynote speaker said, that people first choose a city, then a job. I never though in that way!” (Richard Florida influences :)

Lady: How can we promote quality of place?

Facilitator: that’s very interesting, but it’s another subject, let’s stay focused.
Lady, a little in doubt: But, quality of place is also an incentive to bring companies! We have a great living standard, but we don’t know how to market it.
People agreed, this was also important, and the facilitator let them talk a little about it. (they use images with sailboats and kids with tricycles in their pamphlets).

Young fellow: We’re trying to focus on certain industries.
Facilitator: Yeah, we all are trying to do that.
Young fellow: We in Anytown, Colorado, we’re trying green energy, etc.
Facilitator: Yeah, we all try to target industries, the cluster idea, but boy if there is a bakery that will hire 25 people, we all run like…

Facilitator: In a very hypothetical case, that the federal government will ban cash incentives. Would you agree? Yes = 8. No=3. Undecided= A few.

Facilitator: It would be good, because at the end of the road, we’re fighting against each other (Some nodded) But why would it be bad? Let me ask among the ones who said -no-.

Man who raised his hand fastest when answering no: We will lose firms… In this globalized and competitive world, they will leave us.
Facilitator: So you’re saying that other countries will out-compete us with financial incentives.
Man: Yes.
Facilitator: Could not they do it now?
Man: Errr… yes. But… it would be worse…

Facilitator: Many here have not participated. Any of you have any comment?

I raise my hand.
“I’m a phd student, researching on LED, so I’m really happy to be here, because you’re the guys running the real show. My perspective from the academic research is somewhat different. Most research is very skeptical of incentives. Mainly for two reasons, first because as you said, you’re fighting against each other, and second, it’s really difficult to measure the impact of them. I mean sometimes it can be done (pointing with my hand to the facilitator’s example) but it can be very biased”.

(small silence)

3 old guys, including the facilitators, were hard on me.

Experienced man: “You got your research wrong!! In terms of recruiting, we have got many jobs because of the incentives we have given…. ”

Me: “Just to clarify, I’m talking about cash incentives”.

Experienced man: “Cash incentives, we rarely do it, but they are important…”

Facilitator (looking at me): “I tell you, we gave so little money, and we have got so much! It really works!!

Another guy also was hard on me, I could see his lips moving, but at that point I could not really hear much more nor take notes.

It would have been completely futile for me to quote authors and years, to prove a point, like in an academic conference. These people, they knew, they have been there, they have seen it with their eyes…

Two worlds. I hope you get my point, regardless of what field you come from.

One of the most interesting questions was when the facilitator asked who will increase/the same/decrease their cash incentives the short term future.
Decrease = 8 (our current economic situation won’t let us do it)
Increase = 8 (we have to do it, we have no option)
The same = 4

What a great topic for research, uh!! It would be great to see in 5 years, how these cities have performed in several aspects. It would be such an interesting and publishable paper :) I thought about asking for their business cards, but first I ran out of biz cards (I forgot to bring extras!), and after my controversial question, I don’t know how happy they would be to give me info. I’m sure, like always, some researchers have already done that. I have to find these papers… For my post-doc :)

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2 Responses to “Local Economic Development professionals on how to incentivize the private sector”

  1. Jason Says:

    Interesting to read this. I can see this from a tech perspective. I roll my eyes at a lot of research because it is not practical what they research or that their data sets or other limitations make their conclusions less significant. We do our own research and have larger budgets so more resources to throw at the problem so our results are convincing.

    I could see this where they look at income growth for their city over time before and after a major corporation came to town. Normalize for economic patterns and historical growth and I would imagine their results would be conclusive. But I don’t know enough about your studies and the data you have access to to have a solid position.

    Overall I’m saying I can see their perspective…

  2. Anonymous Says:

    It would be good to compare the ncentive regime of local and regional governments in the US with those in the EU. The latter has specific laws about this and that together with related national legislation effectivly eliminates these large sub-national “incentives” to firms- my understanding also is that there is a general support for national legistlation in the US to stop this squandering of the future residents of comuniies in the US-
    Interested to hear other views. Carlos god for you to share this…. (by the way I am sure city mayors would be very happy if this was stppedm but it needs to be applied aross all states, or at lease have a polcy that favours certan areas.


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