County's economic development strategy calls for discussion

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By The Staff

When they asked for an updated economic development strategy this week, Los Alamos County Council "opened up a whole box of Pandora's," as former New Mexico Governor Bruce King might have said,

For an hour or so, councilors let their hair down and responded refreshingly like individuals, demonstrating a revealing range of opinions and approaches, and there was every indication that the council subcommittee responsible for the document was interested in the input.

These kinds of documents are not easy to draft.

They must be sufficiently conventional and mainstream to be understood and at the same time fresh and inventive enough to represent, if not something revolutionary at least something different.

This one grabbed our interest when we heard that it was going to contain some BHAGs. Pronounced "bee-hags," this is an acronym for Big Hairy Audacious Goals, a concept coined by a popular business writer Jim Collins in his 1993 book, "Built to last."

In the book, he compares a BHAG to the moon mission.

"A BHAG," he writes with his collaborator Jerry Porras, "engages people – it reaches out and grabs them in the gut. It is tangible, energizing, highly focused. People get it right away; it takes little or no explanation."

Never mind that the BHAG concept came out in exactly the same year as the last county economic development strategy was formulated.

So what were those big goals as far as the next county economic development strategy?  

Number one was to support and retain Los Alamos National Laboratory as the area's best wealth producing employer.

Well, that's not a bad idea. In fact, it's almost so obvious it goes without saying; almost so fundamental that it deserves a strategic document all of its own.

Furthermore, saying it tends to relinquish responsibility for economic development to the big dog – and end of story. Expressed in a really hairy way, the county will be an economic development auxiliary of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Is that really what the development plan is about?

If so, why not just leave economic development up to the lab to take care of?

The laboratory after all has a whole division for tech transfer and several economic development programs, which also happen to struggle perennially to prove their worth.

Clearly the lab does not and cannot always place the interests of the Los Alamos community as high in its list of priorities as the county would like in return.

So that's why the community needs more economic depth, more leverage, more options and alternatives to the laboratory's self-interest and service to the nation.

In fact the whole point of taking an independent position with respect to economic development goes somewhat against the grain with respect to LANL. It also has to do with another so-called BHAG, the number two goal in the draft plan, to diversify the economic base.

Granting that the loss or fatal decline of the laboratory would be economically disastrous for the county, we would suggest that diversifying the base would still be a more meaningful goal for that very reason.

The county is joined at the hip with the laboratory and its population is nearly indistinguishable from the laboratory workforce, but the workforce itself is at the mercy of the laboratory and an absentee bureaucracy that does not really have a reliable mechanism to reciprocate those kinds of loyalties.

The point of economic development policies, which deserves much more discussion than these incidental comments about ordering priorities, is validly expressed in the introduction to the draft document, which is, "to preserve, enhance and promote a vibrant and successful local economy."

That is a profound and urgent matter, not just for us, but for everybody.

More suggestions: The document shows little recognition that the world has changed in the last 16 years from analog to digital, from real to virtual or from Podunk to Copenhagen.

What are the lessons that have been learned from the current economic development strategy? Are there metrics that show any consistent success whatsoever?

Please spare us the "cross-walks" between related planning documents, or put that in an appendix somewhere after all is said and done.

How about a section that simply deals with low-cost, high gain strategies like an effective marketing plan?

The county is the fortunate recipient, at no extra cost, of an invaluable brand name, right up there with Disney or IBM.

Los Alamos is "Science City." – accept no substitutes. It just happens to be on its way to becoming, for example, a world-class intellectual resort famous for its mind-pleasing tables specializing in molecular gastronomy, as well as a bicycling capitol of the southwest and a high-altitude training center.

And what else?