I got my garden started this year back in February. Inside the house. I got some seed packets, used a little potting soil, and set the small planters by the sun porch windows. I moved them outside in May and now as I type this in June, I have loads of healthy peppers and tomatoes sucking up the sun on my back patio. Why do you care about my gardening? You probably don’t, but let me tell you why you should.
You should care about my garden because gardening should be our model for economic development. I know I am not the first person to realize this, but the truth of it just fully dawned on me, so please- indulge me. In gardening, we take some pretty inexpensive inputs, tend to them a bit, provide them with the proper conditions and we get drastically more valuable outputs. Gardening is taking a bit of patience and a little maintenance and growing something we want- something we value.
Local economic development should follow the same model if there is any hope of creating local wealth. Take some seeds, in this instance, those seeds are humans. Provide those humans with a little sun and water, and to carry on with the analogy… sun and water are training and education. Tend to those humans, and create positive conditions. Those simple and affordable inputs should grow into something tremendously valuable- contributors to the local economy. Today’s seeds should be the entrepreneurs and real estate developers of tomorrow.
Sadly, we have lost the art of growing local, so instead of raising the next generation of entrepreneurs to run our towns, we rent out our local humans to national corporations so that their value is ultimately extracted from the community. This is not gardening, it’s mining.
I can grow food in my backyard, year in and year out, and have plenty to provide for my family. Gardening is self-reliant, resilient, it’s renewable and it generates lots of value. This is the model communities should strive for. But on the flip side- say I found out I had a baby gold mine in my backyard and I sold it to a company from out of town. They would come in and dig up my backyard and take away the gold. Yes, I would be compensated for my gold, but my backyard would be torn up, it would take me some time to grow plants again, and the gold would all be gone. I cannot sell it again, I just get paid once and then I am left with a large mess to clean up.
When communities adopt the extraction model of economic development, they are selling themselves out. Yes, they get compensated, but do you think they end up making more than the company doing the extraction? Do you think the gold mining company would have taken a loss on digging up my backyard? Of course not, you extract something because we all understand that a company in the extraction business pays for the right to manage the extraction so they can sell the product for more later.
Every single business that comes to your town from somewhere else is automatically in the mining game. They are in the extraction business. If they weren’t extracting money from your town, they would no longer be in business. This is their model. McDonald’s takes more money out of your town than they put in, I promise. The national developer leaves your town with more money in their pocket than they spent. I guarantee it. If this wasn’t the case, we would simply not have national developers or national chains.
It is not to say they are doing anything wrong, but let’s be clear about what is going on, and that is- you are losing. Every time you welcome a business from out of town, you are participating in the extraction form of economic development. You are being paid a small amount to have someone remove something of greater value. You are giving away value, but telling yourself you are coming out ahead. The math just doesn’t add up. It can’t.
Sure, you can say a company added jobs or spent money on an investment and stop at the first step in the equation. But it requires looking just a little bit harder to realize that the jobs and investments were just a mechanism to extract something of greater value. The fast food company puts a little money in at the beginning so they can take more away every day after. The national housing developer is the same, and the national bank is the same. Because they don’t grow with your local ingredients, they have to take away something of greater value. This is extraction economic development and every time your town takes part in it, your town is getting poorer.
This is how capitalism works and while I am not arguing against it, I am arguing that cities and towns have options in how they chose to participate. I suggest gardening is superior to mining. The economic development industrial complex has convinced us that all jobs are good jobs and that all investment is good investment and this notion is laughable.
Jobs that give people a sense of self-worth and provide a living income are good jobs. Those are the type we should strive to grow, they also create local wealth and make our towns more interesting and lovable. Jobs that foster shipping more money out of town are depressing and tend to pay poorly because they have to, are not good jobs, so let’s not pretend otherwise.
A developer can build a strip mall and it would be an investment, but it would be an investment in making a place worse. This makes a place less attractive and once again, facilitates more money leaving town. It does not add value, it does not make people happier, and it does not make the community more resilient, more self-reliant, or prouder. These distinctions are significant and are the difference between communities that are growing and thriving versus the communities that have been mined into oblivion.
Take a look at what is happening in your community. Has it been growing healthier, wealthier, stronger, and more resilient in recent years and decades? If yes, great, you have wasted your time reading this. If the answer is no, then your town has bought into the extraction model of economic development. Please stop. Next time a project comes down the pike, ask yourself a quick question. Will it grow local wealth or is someone extracting local wealth?