Economic Development Key to Thriving Communities

By Gary Ballew, CEcD
VP of Economic Development, Greater Spokane Inc.

Economic Development Week

May 9 – 13 is Economic Development week. Economic Development is at the core of the health and well-being and quality of life for people everywhere.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m an economic developer. What does an economic developer do? Well, a lot has changed over the past two and a half decades, and so has economic development.

The International Economic Development Council defines economic development as “the intentional practice of improving a community’s economic well-being and quality of life. It includes a broad range of activities to attract, create, and retain jobs, and fosters a resilient, pro-growth tax base and an inclusive economy. The practice of economic development comprises of a collaborative effort involving industry, government, and a myriad of community stakeholders.”

The roots of economic development stem from the 1930s and the federal investments called “The New Deal,” implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Great Depression to restore prosperity to Americans. The history of economic development is fascinating. We’ll take a look at this another time.

Economic development is at the heart of what we do at GSI. Having a thriving and healthy economy impacts the health of our community, its local businesses, and the opportunity to grow and thrive. This, in turn, affects the quality of life of all residents.

One of the most well-known economic development strategies involves business recruitment, utilizing marketing and attraction efforts to recruit businesses and create new jobs for a city or region.

Gary Ballew

While this is a headline generator, economic developers now realize that most growth comes from local businesses in a community. While it gets less press, the actual practice, known as “business retention and expansion,” is similar to recruitment but encourages local investment and includes specialties like entrepreneurial support, real estate and infrastructure development, addressing permitting issues, improving tax structure, overcoming barriers, providing incentives, leading community-wide strategic planning, and workforce/talent development.

Recent workforce shortages, brought on by a demographic shift we knew was coming for decades, declining workforce participation rates, the pandemic, and a host of other factors have highlighted the need for talent. Communities that figure out how to grow, retain and attract talent will win the next decades of economic development. That includes a hard look at equity. Segments of our population have been left behind and overlooked and we cannot afford to continue past practices that are the root cause of inequities.

We need to have equitable outcomes. The saying used to be “A rising tide raises all boats,” but not everyone has a boat. Economic development has often had the effect of expanding inequities. An example is the expansion of the Interstate highway system, which was a boon to interstate commerce, but also negatively impacted poorer communities, and communities of color more than others. Another is encouraging private sector investments in poorer neighborhoods causing gentrification in that neighborhood, moving out existing residents, and not helping them improve their quality of life.

So how do we change this? I am not sure that I know, but as a start, equity needs to become a measure of our economic development activities. It’s important to understand the consequences of our actions, both intended and unintended, and look at ways to increase access to programs and build the trust and relationships necessary to implement these programs in underestimated communities.

If you made it this far, congratulations, and thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings on economic development. It is truly a passion for me. Through the coming week, we will provide some highlights on our update of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, called THRIVE Spokane, our new innovation cluster, Evergreen Bio, and highlight the work of our government contracting program, the Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC).

Before signing off I want to take a moment to thank my team at GSI and all the people and organizations that we work with on a daily basis to develop the economy of the Spokane region. Economic development is truly a team sport and no one person or entity does it on their own. If you would like to learn more about what we do or are interested in a presentation to your organization, feel free to reach out and connect with me at

Gary Ballew is an International Economic Development Council Certified (CEcD) economic developer, practicing for more than 26 years to improve communities across Washington State.


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