Our View: Time to stop depending on luck in the economy
September 18, 2012
Thursday marks the start of the 2012 Steamboat Springs Economic Summit, the annual gathering that is the signature event of the Steamboat Springs Economic Development Council. This year marks the 18th summit, and it includes an ambitious visioning process to define our community's economic goals.
But before we turn the Economic Development Council loose on a task list, we must define and agree upon our ultimate destination, what it will look like and how we will know when we have arrived.
A lot has occurred in the local economy since that first economic summit was held in 1994. Even using the simplest of economic performance measurements — per capita income adjusted for inflation — the Yampa Valley's economy, and specifically that of Steamboat, has improved. During this time period, Routt County's per capita income adjusted for inflation grew by 35 percent. By comparison, the entire state of Colorado's per capita income grew by slightly less than 25 percent. Nationally, the number is 21 percent. Clearly, something positive is happening locally.
To what degree this positive trend occurred by accident or as a result of carefully focused planning is unclear. Most likely, more can be attributed to the luck of being at the right place at the right time.
The theme of this year's Economic Summit is "Developing Your Economic Roadmap: Looking Forward, Planning Smart." The summit will provide a mix of speakers and workshops that will allow attendees to define what this theme means for their businesses as well as what it means for us as a community. Defining what economic development means for the greater community likely will be the more significant challenge.
This is not the first time we have wrestled with this question as a community. Unfortunately, economic development is a catch-all term that often is used but just as often poorly understood. Typically, when asked to define what economic development means, we use terms like "diversity" and "vibrancy." As evidence, both of these are referenced in the mission statements of the Steamboat Springs Economic Development Council, the Routt County Economic Development Cooperative and the Steamboat Springs City Council.
Although diversity and vibrancy often are mentioned as the primary goal of any economic development effort, they are not well understood. Way too often, we have been comfortable in allowing each organization associated with economic development — from the City Council to the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association to Routt County government — to use whatever definition they are comfortable with in the hope our good luck continues. The bottom line is that if economic development can mean anything to anyone, it likely means nothing beyond being a much-overused term that is poorly understood.
As part of this year's Economic Summit, we ask those who participate in the afternoon's "visioning" session to ask themselves first, "What is economic diversification, and how will we know if progress is being made?" The same question can be asked in regard to economic vibrancy. We encourage the participants to avoid the temptation to quickly create a to-do list before doing the very hard work of clearly defining what the desired outcome is as it relates to economic diversification and vibrancy. Equally important is defining how progress toward the desired outcome in these two areas is going to be routinely and objectively measured.
As the Cheshire Cat told Alice in Lewis Carroll's novel "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," "If you do not know where you are going, any road will get you there."