Big city development ideas can offer insight

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By Harold Morgan

If you accept the notion that individuals, or firms (firms are made of individuals) create jobs instead of civic powers-that-be, then what about the environment of the community might make it more inviting for those individuals or firms?
Fortunately, people get paid for thinking thoroughly about such problems. Thorough analysis, less interesting and harder than the latest fad, offers much more.
In his 67-page paper, “City Success: Theories of Urban Prosperity,” James Cortright of Impresa Consulting flies through 18 theories of urban success. Space constraints here mean doing little beyond listing the ideas. Cortright considers large metropolitan areas. That limits application in New Mexico. We have four metro areas, and only Albuquerque rates as medium-sized. That said, the ideas offer insight for even the smallest communities.
Successful cities build strategies harnessing talent, innovation, connections and distinctiveness. The best advice may be the most general, “…cities need to avoid fads and copycat policy making… successful cities are successful each in their own way. The challenge may be to find their own unique combination.” Overlaying the discussion is the fact that “relatively few businesses move outside the area in which they are established.”
Business leaders here have chased fads for years with the only obvious result being junkets to places such as Portland for Smart Growth indoctrination. Oddly, the sensible sounding Cortright is from fad-loving Portland.
The theories focus on elements possibly providing the central driver for city development. They’re divided among theories of firms, people and place.
Under firms are business climate, headquarters, diversified (economy), technology and transport, government (offices), clusters (of related firms) and entrepreneurial. The people theories are human capital, gateway, connected and creative.
Place has always been a critical element in defining cities. Rather than meaning a crossroads or a good port site, place here means qualities of a place, as in attraction (the New Mexico Bowl? Certainly the Balloon Fiesta), amenity (parks and schools), consumer (a great place to shop), green (Portland?), sorting (artists to Santa Fe and Silver City), and megapolitan (the Northeastern mass).
Business climate theory, a Martinez administration favorite, holds that differences between places are captured in the price of factors such as tax rates and application of taxes. Everything else, the theory argues, is equal, which of course isn’t true.
The salvation through corporate headquarters theory is nice, but details intrude. Most headquarters are near where the business was started. Only rarely does a headquarters move. The notion of a corporate headquarters, at least one of size, transplanting to New Mexico is fantasy. At one point four or five New Mexico headquartered companies were listed on a major stock exchange. The count today, I believe, is one, PNM Resources, listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Diversifying an economy, a good idea, is possible over time — a long time. Las Cruces, already partly a transportation city with an interstate highway junction and across the street from El Paso, Texas, is becoming even more so with growth of traffic through the Santa Teresa port to Mexico and the new Union Pacific railyard.
Even being a shopping city might be much less silly than it sounds. Brian Moore’s Ranch Market is an integral part of Clayton. When I looked, Moore was selling Surfine large eggs at four for $5.
Application of these ideas can be seen in Kingston, now more famous for not burning this summer. Kingston has become a center of expertise in straw bale building, with Catherine Wanek, owner of the Black Range Lodge in the center of things. Potential exists, however difficult to execute.