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Building strong communities means ‘banking’ on the future

REPUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE FINGER LAKES TIMES.

My colleagues and I engage in many discussions about economic development. We routinely host roundtable sessions with community leaders, where one of the most commonly asked questions is: “What will bring businesses to our town?”

Our discussions encourage a “take charge” attitude, especially among rural community leaders. Too often it’s assumed that local folks have merely a passive role.

Many erroneously believe that economic development is exclusive work, performed by professionals who “chase” down manufacturers and chain stores, meet with executives, and engage in high-level business deals. My colleagues and I redirect focus to the tremendous capability and personal influence that local leaders — and residents — possess over their community’s potential. We challenge people to rethink how they define both economic development and progress!

Successful economic development begins with community development. Amenities, recreation opportunities, attractiveness — often defined by maintenance of public spaces — and even the friendliness of community members are critical factors among people, especially younger, positive-experience-seeking generations, who are carefully selecting where they want to live and work.

Development of sought-after community assets is largely influenced by local leaders, who can create long-range strategies to fund or incentivize their creation and maintenance. Once a vision for the future is shared, resident involvement, buy-in, and a sense of ownership is generated. Achieving and seeing results can lead to a wholesale shift in perception about quality of life in the community.

Responsibility for creating quality of life cannot fall upon local government alone. Public funds can’t be used to open a Starbucks, for instance, and a limited municipal budget can’t expand recreational services into specialized areas.

That’s where private enterprises and local organizations make an incredible difference.

In the Finger Lakes, we have many not-for-profit entities that are tremendous community resources, contributing a great deal to the quality of life we experience. The Geneva Family YMCA is a wonderful example. It is a family-focused recreational outlet and child development center that promotes healthy living, and serves as an extension of so many households in the area.

Another local resource is the Saunders Finger Lakes Museum located in Branchport, right at the tip of Keuka Lake. The museum not only creates a focal point for exploring the Finger Lakes, our most important natural resource, but is a unique recreational and educational opportunity that promotes water-based activities such as kayaking and canoeing, as well as lake-related bird watching. In addition to increasing tourism, its team is awakening those who live here to underutilized and underappreciated recreational resources that exist in our own backyard.

These organizations are helping to build our unique Finger Lakes “brand” — showcasing our unsurpassed, extremely rewarding quality of life.

Currently, both the Geneva Family YMCA and the Saunders Finger Lakes Museum are engaged in fundraising for capital projects, seeking donations large and small to support what will add significantly to their offerings and to our quality of life in the Finger Lakes. (If you haven’t received a direct appeal in the mail for either of these campaigns, please look for them online and seek out ways to help.)

There are hundreds of similarly hard-working organizations in the Finger Lakes community. As individual as they may be, they share a common trait: They were once created to fulfill a community need. Each is an important thread in the fabric of our lives. Without them, there would be a gap — a hole in the tapestry of our quality of life.

Caring for that tapestry is an important form of economic development. Its beauty and breadth is a draw to visitors and future residents who are investors in our local economy. Strengthening its weave creates a more powerful magnet, attracting businesses whose executives want to live where quality of life is apparent and abundant.

Perhaps it’s a surprising answer to “How do we bring businesses to town?” Think local, and turn “the chase” into “the draw.” With action at the most local level, each of us can help intensify that draw. We can get involved in local government planning, and strongly support the local organizations that give us our amazing quality of life.

When asked by those organizations to reach for our wallets, the appeal is typically that of generosity. We “donate,” as if we’re diminishing our personal resources in an act of giving. But think of what we receive! Our local resources, and their positive influence on us personally, are increased.

Supporting quality of life is like making a wise investment in a more promising future. We get the benefits, with interest!

Diana SmithDiana Smith is the former Mayor of Seneca Falls, and is a Senior Municipal Advisor serving as Director of Business Development for MRB Group. She works with Matt Horn on the firm’s Municipal Services Team. Visit Smarter-LocalGov.com.

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