Economic Development Districts across the country are increasingly incorporating equity-based approaches into their planning strategies in an effort to promote more inclusive economic development outcomes. These efforts often center around the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), and updated EDA CEDS Content Guidelines now recommend that equity principles be woven into each component of the planning and implementation process: “Embedding equity in the CEDS and regional economic strategies in an accessible, adoptable way which resonates with the widest possible portion of applicable shareholders can help enable a region to achieve more robust and durable economic growth by including valuable and untapped assets that may have previously been excluded from economic opportunity.”
The increased emphasis on equity in the CEDS has led many EDDs to rethink earlier approaches to CEDS delivery, particularly when it comes to engagement with minority or underrepresented communities in their regions. One such district, the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District (MCEDD), released a new five-year CEDS that used a novel strategy to ensure authentic engagement with its local Native American and Hispanic communities. Though completed before the release of EDA’s updated guidelines, MCEDD’s planning process serves as a powerful example to other districts pursuing similar equity and inclusion goals.
The 2022-2027 Columbia Gorge Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy weaves together themes of resilience and equitable outcomes to create a strong guide for economic development in the region. Straddling the border of Oregon and Washington, the five-county region clusters around the Columbia River, an important cultural site for the two reservations and four treaty tribes that visit it for extended periods of time each year. The region’s advantageous location, diversifying economy, and rich cultural history has attracted growth in recent years, and it has become home to a growing Hispanic population.
Like many districts, MCEDD had to shift its CEDS engagement process online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenge, staff managed to bring together more than 100 community participants for various virtual events and built a diverse steering committee to inform planning efforts. A series of focus groups sought specific feedback from tribal groups and the region’s growing Hispanic communities. “In the past we’ve always made sure the CEDS committee has diverse representation on it, and we try to ask members to reach out to their communities and ask them to participate in our meetings,” says Jessica Metta, MCEDD Executive Director. “So we really built on and expanded our existing efforts.” Recognizing it would be more impactful to work with a trusted community-based organization, MCEDD held engagement sessions in partnership with The Next Door, Inc, a local non-profit that has deep existing relationships with the local Hispanic and Native American communities.
MCEDD received high-quality feedback that emerged from those focus sessions led by Next Door staff, including local perspectives and needs that may have been missed had it not been for this targeted engagement. “It’s a very different place from the usual process of wondering what kind of innovative business solutions we can come up with,” says Metta. “Many participants were just asking how they could get access to things like electricity.” Taken together with the input received from broader engagement sessions, MCEDD was able to build a plan that responds to the diversity of the community and the needs of its underrepresented communities.
Recognizing that community engagement cannot end after merely asking communities for their thoughts, MCEDD has made both accessibility and ongoing engagement top priorities. A dedicated CEDS website, www.gorgeeconomy.org, was developed to house the full CEDS plan that features easy-to-understand graphics and prose. Additionally, a Spanish-language CEDS summary has been made available to ensure that the plan has an even wider reach. Moreover, MCEDD has continued engagement in the implementation process. Metta adds: “We have been continuing to try to find ways to work with The Next Door, who runs great programs focused on Latino entrepreneurship. As we have been looking at new programs and grants, we’ve made sure to reach out to them and try to work together.” The success of the equitable inclusive engagement process at each stage of the CEDS planning process has won it praise from local stakeholders and recognition as a strong blueprint for coordinated economic development and resiliency in the region.
This case study was written by Dion Thompson-Davoli, NADO RF Research Fellow
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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.
Joe has thirty-one years of experience having served in city, county, regional, national association, and government management since 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is a candidate for a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.
McKinney has provided congressional testimony on numerous occasions regarding the importance of regional development organizations in helping shape the nation’s economic growth. He is nationally recognized for promoting innovative solutions in areas such as planning and economic development, workforce development, transportation and transit, and aging services.