By Bill R. Shelton, CEcD
During the initial stages of the founding and funding of community economic development programs, the organizers frequently set the goals and benefits at unrealistic high levels in order to gain the necessary public support to get the program approved.
Unfortunately, these high levels of expectations create a dilemma for those who have the responsibility of implementing the day-to-day operations of the program because a fundamental reality of economic development programs is that they are long-range solutions of incremental development and improvement and are not quick fixes.
Fortunately, community members are generally positive toward economic development, and when they understand the challenges and realities of economic development, they are responsive. In situations where the local government is unable to articulate the benefits and realities of economic development, it falls on the economic development organization to manage community expectations.
Challenges of Managing Community Expectations
Local economic development organizations are generally well versed in communicating and marketing to external businesses but lack experience in internal communications.
The challenge is to develop and ensure community involvement, buy in and ownership without lowering realistic expectations. Here are two tips for managing community expectations and developing a healthy and rewarding relationship with the many stakeholders in a community.
1. Communicate constantly. Desirable organizational values can be communicated but their communication cannot be left up to chance. They must be communicated through speeches, memoranda, communications and rituals. Open communication is both an expression and a cause of trust. Make very clear:
- the organization’s values, vision and culture are what you want to preserve, and
- positive aspects of what the organization’s accomplishments mean for the community.
An excellent example of open community communications to close the gap between the community stakeholders and the economic development corporation were weekly newspaper columns written by Howard D. Bessire who managed economic development programs in South Bend, IN; El Paso, TX and Wichita Falls, TX. The content of these weekly columns was incorporated into three books that were edited by Howard and they became basic text books in the economic development profession. The books are:
- Techniques of Industrial (Economic) Development 1965
- The Practice of Industrial (Economic) Development 1970
- Handbook of the Eighties: Industrial (Economic) Development 1981
2. Hold regular status meetings. Many local economic development corporations operate behind a vail of mystique and secretiveness, which arouses suspicion. Holding regular open status meetings helps the stakeholders to understand the process behind economic development, to adjust their expectations to realities such as competition, to understand future positioning, and for the organization to build trust and transparency.
Managing community expectations is the single most important aspect of maintaining a productive and healthy work environment. Being in positions to listen to stakeholders either indirectly or directly through face-to-face meetings is one of the useful ways to understand and manage community expectations.