Author argues for broader look on economic growth

Ashland has the means to increase its quality of life and become more sustainable, and one Southern Oregon University economics professor believes it can be done while lowering taxes at the same time.

In his upcoming book "The Future of Local Economic Development: Quality of Life and Sustainability," Ric Holt argues local governments need new ways to measure economic development that include quality of life and sustainability, rather than just traditional growth indicators.

He was inspired to write the book while observing local city councils and the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, but he hopes that local policymakers around the country will apply his findings, he said. He co-wrote the book with Daphne Greenwood, a professor of economics at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and the director of the Center for Colorado Policy Studies. She also served as a Colorado state representative.

One primary problem the pair identified was that local policymakers tend to equate economic growth with economic development, when the two are actually very different, Holt said.

"Economic development provides a comprehensive approach to growth, quality of life and sustainability," he said. "There are positive aspects and negative aspects to economic growth."

While he is not anti-growth, it is time for a new approach to growth that puts people and their needs first, not just private businesses, he said.

Traditional growth models attract private industries with the belief that they will create high-paying jobs and improve the overall standard of living. Instead, many companies bring in their own management, create mainly low-paying manufacturing jobs and give money to their stockholders rather than investing in the local community, he said. New companies require an expansion of services, such as water and electricity, which pushes the average cost up for all residents without an increase in the quality of life for those residents, he said.

"It isn't that I'm against having new businesses come to the area," he said. "What I'm arguing is we need to have other ways to create jobs."

Holt argues to shift tax incentive from supporting private business to supporting local entrepreneurship and sprawl reduction. Communities should focus on investment in several types of capital, including an educated workforce, natural resources, public and social capital, he said.

To gauge the success under a model that includes sustainability and quality of life, governments need to collect new types of statistics, he said.

The old model tracks employment rates, interest rates and stock market performance, but ignores congestion, pollution, sprawl and crime, all of which can increase with growth and negatively impact quality of life, he said.

New statistics should be unique, aligned to the qualities that residents of each particular community have deemed important, along with measurements such as per capita income.

Seattle, for example, tracks efforts to save salmon as a quality of life index, and Jacksonville, Fla., measures efforts to lower race tensions. In Ashland, more miles of bike paths could be a marker of development, while increased access to forests for hunting might be a positive move in Medford, he said.

"What's important is that local communities define for themselves what's important," he said.

While Ashland has taken measures to become more sustainable and increase quality of life — both popular themes in the recent election — Ashland and other progressive towns still have plenty of work to do, Holt said.

"There is an awareness, there is a desire to move away from the old model to the new model, but they're not quite sure what to do," he said. "They're exploring, experimenting and worried about increased costs."

Holt also sees an opportunity for SOU to increase its involvement in the city, helping define and measure quality of life indicators.

"This provides a wonderful opportunity for SOU to work with people in the community and the whole Valley," he said. "We want to provide city leaders with objective information."

The book should hit shelves by October 2009, Holt said.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or

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