Promoting Equitable Investment and Job Generation in Fort Worth, Texas

Guest blog by Robert Sturns

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. 65 Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in May 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

When I began the Leading Economic Growth program, my goal was really driven by a desire to understand how we could have a more equitable distribution of investment and jobs throughout my community. As we really begin to dig into issues of economic complexity, I discovered that our issue was much larger than just ensuring an equitable distribution of jobs. We really needed to focus on driving overall investment to the community as a first step and then ensure that those opportunities were experienced across the City. You can see this shift in thinking occur as you look at the fishbone exercises I completed over the course of the program.

As I studied the issue and thought through our challenges, I began to really see the binding constraints that are impacting our efforts. While marketing and promotion of the City is an easy first step that should be encouraged, it is increasingly difficult to convince new large-scale businesses to open in certain areas of the city. Business consolidations and web technology have eliminated many of the traditional neighborhood serving businesses and left low-income alternatives in their place. Because the high-skilled jobs are in other areas of the city that lack public transportation, these communities do not get the benefit of growing know how through a formal corporate environment and rely on individual operators in a less formal environment that impacts wages and know how. Low human capital is also a challenge for our underserved areas in that the high school graduation rate for minority (particularly African-American) students lags significantly behind their white counterparts.  This suggests that they will not be prepared for the incoming jobs of the future if we do not begin to take steps to address this problem.

Since marketing/promotion of the City has been an identified area of need that could be easily implemented, I was very interested in working on a CINDE like approach to our marketing challenges that would engage partners at the city, chamber(s) of commerce and the business community. By utilizing this model, the entities could focus on specific targets within an industry and spend time and effort on marketing to those businesses and building relationships. We have already begun having those conversations with the chamber of commerce, and have developed a perception survey that was sent out to over 100 site selectors to gauge their impressions of Fort Worth, and why we may not be seeing as many recruitment opportunities as we would like to see. Following the survey, both the city and chamber will begin to look at how we can develop a more comprehensive and proactive pitch campaign utilizing additional feedback from our local business community.

As I mentioned, identifying the true binding constraint on our growth was also a key part of the course that I focused on during the program. Fort Worth completed an economic development strategic plan three years ago that comprised over 200 recommendations or policy reforms to be undertaken by various organizations across the city. While we have made progress on many of the recommendations, that has not resulted in significant new business attraction/investment or new job creation. The recommendations and polices we have pursued do not seem to have identified the real binding constraint of why we are not attracting more development opportunities. In particular, one challenge that was highlighted in my fishbone diagram, is that we do not have the resources in place to accomplish some of the more primary tasks we need to complete as identified by the plan. In looking at how we could improve our efforts, we will need to drill down to what is our true binding constraint and focus our efforts there as additional resources are not likely in the near future. It will be imperative to pare back a lot of the recommendations going forward and focus on what is truly making an impact on our community.

A final insight from the course that was very illuminating was on the concept of the city’s identity and sense of “us”. Fort Worth, while being the 13th largest city in the U.S., describes itself as being a large city that maintains a small-town feel. We pride ourselves on our western heritage by embracing slogans like “The City of Cowboys & Culture” which is part of our identity and make up the sense of what makes us Fort Worthians. However, that sense of “us” does suggest a community that is not very diverse or progressive to those not from Texas, and can be a significant challenge when trying to attract new investment from other parts of the country. Younger residents of the city have a much different perception of the city and how it needs to promote itself. While they still have pride in the “maverick” spirit of the city, younger residents are more aligned and interested in the progressive neighborhoods, artists, creatives and entrepreneurs that make up the community. In addition, our minority residents often do not see themselves reflected in the perception of “us” that is promoted nationally and should have better representation. In considering enhanced marketing efforts and promoting the city in order to deal with the growth challenge, we will have to balance keeping some semblance of what makes the city what it is, while promoting the opportunities it can provide and what it could be in the future.

Given that my growth challenge is specifically about investment and equity, I was really intrigued by the efforts of bringing inclusion to the forefront of our growth strategies and would like to explore this in more depth in the future. In looking at models like the Brookings Metro Indicators or OCED, setting metrics on wage growth, poverty rates and job growth in underserved areas, seem to be efforts that should be pursued at the city, state and national level. The big question will be how to balance growth while also tackling inequity. As Dr. Hausmann so eloquently put it during our closing session, the problems we face may be clear, but the proposed solutions may not give a full answer to the problems due to our assumptions and beliefs about the nature of the world. We need to look outside of assigning blame and focus on addressing the overall problems of inequality. How can cities/regions/countries truly galvanize support across multiple entities and expand cooperation in order to focus on addressing the problem of inequality? This will likely be the defining issue of economic growth over the next few decades.

To learn more about Leading Economic Growth (LEG) watch the faculty video, and visit the course website.

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