Blueprint doesn't guarantee economic success, cities say

June 02, 1991|By David Conn

In locations as diverse as Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Raleig and Durham, N.C., government and business leaders have forged economic development plans, set them in motion and tallied their investment returns in new jobs, new businesses and stronger industries.

Pittsburgh, for instance, shifted from an emphasis on its aging steel industry to a more diverse economy with strengths in computer engineering, biomedicine and business services. North Carolina's Research Triangle leveraged its computer and pharmaceutical research bases to shake the hold that textiles and tobacco had on the region for decades. And Indianapolis has won a worldwide reputation for its sports facilities and associations.

That's the good news.

The bad news: Even business and civic leaders in revitalized cities can't say for sure that their efforts have gone much beyond what a general turnaround in the economy might have done by itself.

And experts agree that planning is no guarantee of success. Austin, Texas, still struggles to get a planned technology-based revolution off the ground. And even though Seattle has worked to build a reputation as the primary U.S. entry point for Far Eastern countries, it remains tied too closely to its biggest manufacturer.

"The old saying, 'When Boeing sneezes, Seattle gets pneumonia,' is true," said Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which last month unveiled a comprehensive blueprint to make the Baltimore region the nation's leader in "life sciences."

Baltimore cannot afford to leave its fate in the invisible hands of the free-market economy, the GBC's Economic Vision Task Force argues in a report called "Baltimore. Where Science Comes to Life." If it does, the task force predicts, the region faces a future economy still rooted in its industrial past, one with slowing job growth, rising unemployment, declining wages and an increasingly wide disparity between the rich and the poor.

If the blueprint is followed successfully, the GBC report paints a portrait of a city that leads the nation in everything from genetic engineering and environmental sciences to pharmaceuticals, marine biology and health care.

The four-part strategy for promoting this new economic engine includes reforms and advances in education, physical infrastructure, entrepreneurial activity and community involvement.

Business and political leaders around the country have been trying to shape and reshape their local economies since World War II. But in the last decade, partly because of the recession of the early 1980s and partly because of advances in a spectrum of high-technology industries, those planning efforts have proliferated.

In 1984, for instance, after the near-collapse of the steel industry, Pittsburgh business leaders published a nine-part examination and prescription for the area's economy. In the 1982 recession, Pittsburgh's economy "fell off the cliff," said Robert Pease, who until January was director of the Allegany Conference on Community Development.

With unemployment around 16 percent and 100,000 jobs lost between 1980 and 1983 in the region, the Allegany Conference began working on a revitalization strategy that examined the area's physical infrastructure, the prominence of locally headquartered businesses, the tax and regulatory climate and the overall quality of life, among other issues.

Unlike the GBC's report, which focused on one group of industries, the Allegany Conference's 1984 report called for initiatives that would help all businesses and would improve the overall business climate.

The recommendations included creating venture capital funds, job training programs, federal procurement assistance plans, marketing and promotion and a variety of other programs, Mr. Pease recalled.

The results were impressive, as recounted five years later in another report by the conference. Specific results of the various agencies and programs created in the wake of the 1984 report were reported: The new Pittsburgh Seed Fund invested or attracted $21 million for 10 start-up companies and helped create more than 90 jobs; the Federal Procurement Technical Assistance Program helped win $30 million in federal contracts for 150 companies, which hired or retained more than 600 employees.

Still, much of the improvement was due to the national economy's strong rebound after 1983, and city planners are reluctant to accept all the praise. "We either got lucky or skillful or both," Mr. Pease said.

Planners in the famed Research Triangle area of North Carolina, whose corners are the towns of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, shaped a development strategy from a strong foundation of academic and research facilities.

That foundation was laid in the late 1950s, according to Gary Shope, vice president of the private, non-profit Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina. The foundation's primary job is to operate the Research Triangle Park, a 32-year-old, 6,850-acre research and development park in the middle of the triangle.

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