Community change is a fact of life

Jim Johnson, Jr., Ph. D.

September 12, 2007

By Paul Collins - Bulletin Staff Writer

Communities need to continually reposition themselves to compete for business and talent in the knowledge-intensive and speed-driven economy of the 21st century - in an era of economic uncertainty and global insecurity.

That was the message Jim Johnson, Jr. from the University of North Carolina gave a Martinsville audience Tuesday in a talk sponsored by the Harvest Foundation at the Southern Virginia Artisan Center.

Johnson, Ph. D., is a professor at UNC; director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center and the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise; William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship; and co-director of the Center for Sustainable Enterprise.

More than 40 people, including city and county officials, attended Johnson's speech

Johnson said "three bottom-line" principles for a community to reposition itself are:  Do not harm the environment and protect natural resources; adhere to principles of social justice and equity in economic and community development efforts (which he said is the hardest of the principles to achieve); and return strong shareholder/stakeholder value.

Sustainable communities should provide equal access to everyone, rather than being exclusive communities where only the well-off can afford to live, he said, adding that all residents should have the opportunity to improve their lives.

He said other general principles include preservation of historic resources, available jobs, secure neighborhoods, accessible health care, contained sprawl and compact development through such things as developing vacant spaces between existing buildings or adapting existing buildings or spaces for better use.

He said other goals and principles for communities include: Making transportation systems less reliant on cars and more dependent on public transit, walking and biking; minimizing groundwater extraction, air and water continamination, use of agricultural and forst lands, and disruption of biodiversity and habitat; protecting and/or avoiding ecological sensitive and hazard prone areas (such as  in some homes of California where people rebuild their homes after mudslides).

He suggested a civic entrepreneurial model of a community, which involves commitments from local governments, traditional and non-traditional financial institutions, education and others.

Johnson said it is critical for communities to develop "branding" as an economic development marketing tool.  He said that communities should determine what they do well, what they are known for, what their values and visions are.

When asked what he thought of the Web sites he saw in Martinsville and Henry County, he said he had to work too hard to get information on economic development.  Also, he said the chamber, city and county Web sites should be linked, which they are not.

Johnson asked the audience the No. 1 factor a company considers in selecting a community in which to locate.  His answer seemed to come as a surprise to many. He said a CEO of a company told him how fat the community was the No. 1 factor, because he felt it was an indicator of health costs and productivity of potential employees in that community.

He also talked about the "graying" and "browning" of America, the Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and pre-Baby Boomers retiring and near retiring; about the Baby Bust generation (when tens of millions of fewer babies were born) that followed, and about how in future years people who now are minorities will dominate in numbers.

He said, for example, that the average Hispanic birth rate is about double that of "natives".

Johnson and some members of the audience discussed immigrants.  Johnson said the debate about illegal immigrants emphasizes the educational, health and incarceration costs, but the debate often fails to consider the much larger picture of how much they contribute to the economy.  He said Hispanics spend $9.3 billion, which amounts to $9 for every $1 spent for services for them.


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