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Unrelated events spark a little enlightenment

It’s an early Monday morning. I am sitting in the lobby of a 30-story hotel next door to Grand Central Station reflecting on the previous day’s performance of the Verdi Requiem in Carnegie Hall in which a 240-voice choir from Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee along with the Manhattan Philharmonic knocked off their socks.

I settle in a low sofa and begin absorbing the day’s edition of The New York Times. To my right, a group of business people prepare for the Overseas Property Expo upstairs. To my left, a couple from France argues about the best way to get to the airport. At least, that is what I think they are arguing about. I had two years of French in high school, so all I really know is that they are speaking the language.

Thirty minutes later I lay down the newspaper on the heavy glass coffee table in front of me and realize that I have just read three articles that have a whole lot to do with economic development and that I must write a column about it.

Beginning with a question

And so I begin by asking you this question: What do Cousin Brucie, the New York Fire Department and Vorkuta, Russia, have to do with economic development? As you ponder the question, I have a few hints and a little more information for you.

• Cousin Brucie, the longstanding disc jockey who plays the oldies at radio station WCBS, may no longer be at the controls after the parent company decided that a new format would be a better bet. The new sound is called “Jack.” Basically, it’s a mix of music from the late 1970s to the early 90s.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth because of the change, but the headline said it all, “After Decades on the Dial, Cousin Brucie Falls Victim to a Changing Media World.”

• Firefighters at the New York Fire Department took matters in their own hands and designed a rope escape system that is considered a revolutionary change from the one they are using now. It features a reinforced metal hook that can quickly be attached to a chair or a pipe or whatever. It is made of Kevlar, a material usually associated with the term “bulletproof.”

The new rope escape is expected to replace the older, bulkier rope system and will make New York the only city in the country to provide all its firefighters with such an escape system if they have to jump out of a burning building.

• In Vorkuta, Russia, the mayor has an idea that he hopes will attract tourists. The plan is to market a weekend in a gulag in the middle of nowhere, which is just about where Vorkuta is located considering that is it above the Arctic Circle.

The mayor calls it “extreme tourism.” He says that Americans can come and attempt to escape while guards attempt to shoot them — with paint balls, not bullets.

What about an answer?

Now let us answer the question. These three apparently unrelated items are examples of what civic leaders and economic developers must understand about their communities.

First, change will occur, as Cousin Brucie found out. As Peter Drucker said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Communities can embrace change and have some influence on it, or do nothing and allow it to control the future.

Secondly, citizens must realize that in order to change their communities they must do like the New York firefighters and take matters in their own hands. No one from outside is going to come in and do it for them.

Yes, consultants can be hired to provide expert advice and analysis, but in the end the people must do it for themselves.

Third, one way to increase the economic wealth of a community is to attract outsiders to events or attractions in the community.

The trick is to find out what is unique about the community that will draw in those from outside. And what if you have no natural attractions? Sometimes, it is necessary to create something, such as a festival, event or attraction, to entice people to visit the community. No one is likely to visit a town that is just like his or her town.

As Beverly Meng, the executive director of the Mississippi Main Street Association, points out, “I never have seen anybody leave their Wal-Mart to come see your Wal-Mart.”

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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