Griff and Tracy have been hinting that my recent postings are perhaps a bit lacking in substance. In fact, on Friday night in Bridge Square, Griff actually threatened to bring back the pictures of the ducklings if I didn’t raise the bar a bit.
Well, I will continue to insist that Jerry Garcia was a genius, although perhaps also an acquired taste. However, I can’t risk the return to the ducklings.
Tracy’s recent post, We The People: What One of Them Wants Northfield to Be, was of great interest to me. She emphasized her goal of cradle-to-grave livability and her value of the collective wisdom of the last 5,000 years, I believe in contrast to the conventional wisdom of the last 50 years.
Although Tracy and I generally disagree about art, we’re often on the same page for community planning. It was not a surprise to me that we share values and goals on this topic. However, I was genuinely surprised that we arrived at the same place coming from such different angles.
Tracy seemed to be thinking about what Northfield “should” be. Perhaps I’m more limited in my thinking; I’m only contemplating what Northfield “could” be. While Tracy envisions a full quality of life, I’m just chasing a bit of economic development. I’m going to blame it all on Michael Porter.
I read Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy in business school. I found his ideas so interesting that I later read his Competitive Advantage for pleasure.
Porter argues that you can compete on cost or you can compete on differentiation. I would express this idea as you can either be the low cost supplier or the high quality provider. I would further extend this idea from businesses selling products to communities pursuing economic development.
In her recent posting, Tracy mentions “big boxes”. In Porter’s analysis, they would be the low cost suppliers. They are based on the cheap model: cheap gas, cheap parking, and cheap wages.
I don’t think I’m taking her argument too far if I suggest that following this low cost model might lead one to propose a concept of a business park, or a housing development, or a retail mall in the middle of a cornfield. Such an approach is firmly based on cheap gas, cheap parking, and cheap wages.
However, it’s not all cheap. There are some substantial costs. Pursuing this model requires a considerable investment in infrastructure. In fact, Tracy warns of spending millions more to extend infrastructure and services to outlying areas.
I think Tracy and I share a vision of a different model for economic growth, perhaps more in line with Porter’s high quality provider. This model would focus on maximizing leverage from your assets, not just your existing infrastructure, like water and sewer, and roads and communications, but such quality assets as an authentic downtown and a scenic river.
As our recent long waltz with ID Insight proved, those companies that Tracy desires, with 10 to 50 high-paying jobs, don’t want to locate in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere. These sought after companies seem to be attracted not by the low cost supplier but by the high quality provider.
To be perceived by these desirable companies as the high quality provider, we must maximize the leverage from our assets. Connections to our authentic downtown and scenic river that are not based on cheap gas, some of which in fact don’t require gas at all, are one way to leverage economic growth from these assets. In this context, such connections are not luxurious amenities but shrewd investments.
These concepts are not impractical dreams of sandal-wearing hippies. A recent newspaper headline read something like “Gas Prices to Remain High, at least for the Near Future”. Attention Northfield Police Department, I know who’s smoking the heroin, and it’s not the Deadheads.
Gas is like gold. There is a limited, in fact diminishing, supply. The price is, and will be, high, now, in the near future, and forever, at least until we use it all up; then it will be unattainable at any price. Therefore, non-gas-dependent transportation options are part of smart planning for future economic growth.
I do not believe that Northfield can compete as the low cost supplier. The price of land in town does not compare favorably with surrounding communities. We are not located on a freeway. We do not have, nor is it our goal to create, a low cost workforce.
There are probably dozens of communities in southeastern Minnesota with cornfields. Most, if not all, probably have cheaper land, a closer freeway, and a lower cost workforce. But how many of them have an authentic downtown, a scenic river, and a college for every 9,000 residents?
I believe that Northfield’s competitive advantage is as the high quality provider. Connecting our homes and business to the authentic downtown and scenic river strengthens our image as the high quality provider. Making room in our leadership structures for the colleges and the retailers, long experienced in competing through differentiation, supports the strategy of providing high quality. Maximizing leverage from existing infrastructure helps establish our abilities as the high quality provider.
Northfield has arrived at a critical point in decision-making about which strategy for economic development our community will pursue. It is time to tell our community’s leaders which strategy you believe will provide the desired results.