How to Develop a Strategic Economic Development Plan

Your first step toward economic development and a quality of place? A strategic economic development plan.

With a strategic economic development plan, your economic growth is sustainable and measurable. Without one, your economic future is the destiny of others. It’s reactive to their needs and not the interests of your community and its sustained economic growth.

But how do you do it?

Below, I share five steps toward a strategic economic development plan. It'll give your community or region the best chance for short-term and long-term success.

Know that a successful plan will account for:

  • Public and private partnerships and investment.
  • Human resource development, education and training.
  • Land use and sustainable housing growth.
  • Commercial and industry stock.
  • Social, recreational, arts and cultural development.

These components should work together to improve your quality of life and your community’s quality of place.

Let’s begin with step one.


#1. Accept that you need a coordinated strategy and plan

Acceptance is the first step. Recognizing you lack an organized and documented plan in the first place is critical.

Perhaps you thought you needed a plan for some time now or need to update a dusty plan (for example, a strategy to target the laser disk or pager industry’s market share) but haven’t had the confidence to take the first step. Maybe you’ve seen the signs – businesses relocating or a declining population.

Either way, you’re ready to take the reins. You're prepared to be proactive about the economic vitality of your community and create a quality of place. You're willing to take the lead and assemble your project team.


#2. Assemble your team with key stakeholders

You’ve personally accepted that a strategic economic development plan is necessary. Now you need to get the commitment of key stakeholders. 

Who should be on your team?

Knowing a dynamic plan requires a dynamic team, consider this list of key representatives:

  • Influential local elected officials
  • Local economic development organization (LEDO) representatives
  • Representatives of the business community (industry, financial, retail and office members)
  • Resident members
  • Major non-profit agencies
  • Local places of worship
  • A member of a local or regional workforce development office

The size of your community or region often dictates the size of your team. But, as a general rule, your team should be no less than six but no more than 12 members to be effective. Fewer than six and you will lack the diversity required to approach your plan from all the angles it needs. More than 12 and you’ll have too many voices to reach an amicable consensus.

Let’s get to planning.


#3. Develop your plan, including tasks, deadlines and milestones

As you develop your plan, consider these guiding questions:

How can we strengthen existing businesses and attract new ones? How do we improve quality of life for both today and in the long term? What is our community’s economic vision, mission and goals for sustainable economic growth?

To address these questions in your plan, you must:

  • Create a working plan with milestones. Milestones include deadlines and costs for the completion and implementation processes.
  • Understand economic and demographic data based on research, analysis and forecasting — similar to an investor in the stock market.
  • Understand the natural assets of your community or region to develop realistic goals for economic development.
  • Know your community or region as a product — its past, present and future.
  • Know your strengths, opportunities, weaknesses and threats.
  • Have a general understanding of future market trends and industry advances.
  • Combine your research and analysis with public input and dialogue. (Remember, this is a community and/or regional effort requiring buy-in and support for success.)

The success of your efforts will hinge on activities, investments and programs that increase employment, improve job quality and boost the overall business climate. Your progress will be measured by your ability to create a quality of place where companies, businesses and individuals alike want to invest.

A strategic economic development plan can be complex. However, do your best to keep it simple. The level of complexity is your decision, but know that a successful plan must be understandable to all your key stakeholders and economic development officials.

A rule of thumb: you should be able to present your vision in a simple PowerPoint presentation no longer than 30- to 45-minutes. Why so short? It’s the typical amount of time available at a Chamber, Rotary, or other similar business meeting. Of course, longer presentations can be tailored to individual organizations, panels or forums as necessary.



#4. Implement your plan

Much like any capital improvement plan, the implementation plan should be based on projects and programs, short-, medium- and long-term prioritization, and the costs associated with implementation. Implementation must be a standalone chapter or section within your plan document.

Short-term programs may include:

  • Listing all the commercial, office and industrial businesses in your community or region
  • Establishing an annual local economic development report card to monitor and track economic growth
  • Meeting with the top 10 employers in the community

Long-term programs may include:

  • Identifying and developing an area for industrial development
  • Improving local educational programs to meet the employment needs of a specific or targeted industry
  • Cultivating ancillary social, cultural, arts or recreational infrastructure or programs (bike trails or nature conservation areas or other cultural amenities to supplement community programming)
  • Developing technology-based or application-based districts for individuals to develop high-technology tools or computer applications. (This is an important emerging industry in our global economy. It takes into account all the spin-off or supplemental development associated with this type of niche district.)

Keep in mind your goal is to be the first in your area (not the last) to develop an economic niche.


#5. Keep updating

Make sure your team understands the strategic economic development plan is dynamic and fluid. You cannot simply set it and forget it. Use your annual local economic development report card to ensure your economic growth and plan remains consistent to its vision, mission and goals. Lastly, review your plan for modifications on a regular basis, taking into account changing economic trends and technology.

About the Author

Dan Botich

Dan Botich, Sr. Economic Development Professional and leader of the SEH economic development team in Indiana, is a project management and financial advisory professional with more than 30 years of experience. He believes a strong relationship among community leaders, businesses and educational institutions is the foundation of economic growth and sustainable development. Contact Dan

Better Projects 101: Practical Tips

Want a better project? Download our free eBook filled with tips on hiring a consultant, stakeholder engagement, project delivery, project management and more.