Community economic development is The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation’s newest priority area. This priority area addresses the “economic disparities and lack of a diverse economy” root cause that was identified during the organization’s strategic planning process.

Community economic development can be defined as the actions taken by an organization or a group of organizations representing an urban neighborhood or rural community in order to:

1. Improve the economic situation of local residents (disposable income and assets) and local businesses (profitability and growth); and

2. Enhance the community’s quality of life as a whole (appearance, safety, networks, gathering places, and sense of positive momentum).

Community economic development is both people-based and placed-based, which means that individuals, families and communities are positively impacted. Individual and family impact encompasses increasing the economic standard of living for low-wealth persons in low-wealth neighborhoods. This includes increasing residents’ discretionary income (income available after paying necessities) and wealth (assets and savings).

Community impact encompasses rebuilding the prosperity and livability of an entire community for the benefit of existing residents and businesses. This can include rebuilding the community’s social fabric through economic means such as:

Creating new community gathering places — restaurants, childcare centers and coffee shops.

Strengthening community pride and confidence through continual visible improvements.

Providing long-term stability and affordability through local ownership of businesses and properties.

Generating inspiring new role models through local entrepreneur development and career development.

Community economic development differs from development projects led by the private or public sector alone. As mentioned above, it is multi-purpose, with desired individual and community impact, as well as financial returns. Traditional economic development is solely focused on financial returns. Furthermore, community economic development has a long-term focus within one targeted area, versus moving on after a project or two.

Additionally, community economic development is carried out in accord with a plan of ongoing, multiple projects and goals, created and controlled by residents, businesses and institutions. Finally, CED involves smaller-scale solutions versus the large-scale solutions of traditional economic development.

Community economic development focuses on four pivot points, which may operate as economic engines for family and community impact. These are the four most common and potentially powerful approaches that groups can use to change the economy of their community:

1. The community’s workforce.

2. Job opportunities.

3. Microbusinesses.

4. The commercial district.

These pivot points are crucial to local economies and are often used as primary strategies.

The large number of unemployed and underemployed residents in low-wealth communities is a major economic problem.

These residents face many challenges, including the lack of work skills, networks and support necessary to obtain and retain steady employment. Workforce development and placement in jobs with livable wages and advancement opportunities, usually lead residents on the best path to economic stability. Community economic development initiatives can work to increase the number of residents in these types of employment opportunities.

There are particular types of expanding businesses that grow a steady stream of entry-level jobs that pay livable wages with some benefits and the possibilities of career advancement.

Community economic development initiatives are tasked with identifying these opportunities. Initiatives can work to attract these businesses to their community and assist in the elimination of barriers to their growth.

Businesses with five or fewer employees are referred to as “microbusinesses.” Microbusinesses in low-wealth communities often lack the resources that they need to thrive, including access to capital.

If supported, these businesses can generate significant economic activity in a community. Owners can serve as role models and inspire others. They can also work to restore life to vacant storefronts. These businesses can bring goods and services to the community and create jobs. Most of all, their efforts can spark positive momentum in a community. Community economic development initiatives can find and support microbusinesses which are certainly assets to their communities.

Commercial district revitalization is critical for low-wealth communities. The “Main Street” in a community represents its “face.” It is this street that forms the perceptions (good or bad) of a community. These perceptions often lead to a community’s reality. Deteriorating commercial districts are undesirable for customers and businesses. Therefore, commercial district revitalization in low-wealth communities is critical and presents another opportunity for development initiatives.

A diversity of investors and actors are needed to rebuild an economy. Organizations engaged in community economic development are only one set of actors, and the Foundation is only one investor. The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation will work to attract other actors and investors to address the economic disparities and diversification needs in our region.

Michelle Mickle Foster is president and CEO of The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation.

– See more at: http://www.wvgazettemail.com/gazette-op-ed-commentaries/20160731/michelle-mickle-foster-new-target-at-greater-kanawha-valley-foundation#sthash.94gNU6Ve.dpuf