Richard C. Fuqua
It has been suggested in economic circles that “rising tides lift all ships.”
In other words, when the overall economy is rising, the conditions of individuals and groups within that economy improve.
However, what gets lost in the discussion is that the degree of improvement varies with the starting position of the individual or group in the local economy at the time of rising tides.
Similarly, when there are economic downturns, “ships” do not recede at the same time and rate.
I maintain there are at least three causes, steeped in history, that continue to plague many disadvantaged communities in North Carolina:
* Poorly designed or maintained ships
When a ship has a gaping hole due to poor design that has not been fixed, chances are that ship will not be able to take advantage of prime opportunities to move forward.
A community’s “gaping hole” could be that it suffers more than its fair share of what has been termed “environmental racism” in the location of facilities such as landfills and water treatment plants.
Also, a lack of sufficient utilities and infrastructure such as water and sewer systems lessens the community’s attractiveness to new and expanding companies.
* Poorly trained captains and their crews
Even with the finest of sailing vessels, if the captain and crew are not properly trained to manage the ship’s capabilities in calm and unsettled waters, not only could sailing be inefficient, but the ship could be in danger of a shipwreck.
When the leadership of a community, whether elected or community-based, is unable to articulate or implement the “building blocks” for economic development, such as business development, physical infrastructure, civic and social infrastructure, and workforce development, the community’s economic growth prospects are slim to none.
* Favor or disfavor of the sea’s currents
As we are witnessing with the “perfect storm” of the slowing economy, the mortgage crisis and high energy prices, these conditions are negatively affecting low-to-moderate-income individuals and communities to a much higher degree.
In contrast, if you visit your local shopping mall, you can’t tell that there is a slowdown in the economy.
A key strategy for working with local communities to improve their economic conditions is to leverage the community’s assets and mitigate economic disadvantages by providing programs such as leadership training, research and development, physical and technological infrastructure grants, and business start-up and growth capital.
Partnerships involving government, philanthropic organizations and corporations can work to make sure that as economic tides rise, all communities will truly reap the benefits.
Richard Fuqua is senior director for business development at the N.C. Rural Center in Raleigh and was a 1995-97 Friday Fellow at the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham.