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Local Histories and Economic Development

It’s been a quiet few weeks as people have taken their summer holidays here in the USA so this week instead of bringing you the usual interview format I thought I’d visit an article published by Ed Burghard from Ed’s article posed the question:

Are Local Histories the Key To Better economic Development?

The subject came about as a result of an email from Mike Milkovich at a media production company out of Ohio. They interpret local history from two angles, “pride of place” and “economic development.”  Pride of place is for kids to feel proud of their community, economic development simply means to inspire kids to do great things with their life.  Dream, and pursue those dreams and believe you can accomplish them, as others have in your hometown.

Mike is in a unique position in that he produces local histories and designs them as an economic development piece that becomes part of a school’s curriculum. These high school curriculums become a feeder  system for economic development. This is what feeds college age and above people and those people are your target audience for Economic Development is a region.

More specifically, Mike says, social studies curriculum bear  the bulk of the responsibility feeding EDO’s the talent to start businesses and attend  college, etc. The history organizations are upset because most of the funding goes to other things politicians think are more important than civics. What they are “selling” is preservation, intellectual understanding, critical thinking, all important things in many minds but not to the politicians and their pocket books. In short, they haven’t tied local history to making money. What they haven’t done is tie local history to economic development and what Economic Developrs have failed to do is tie economic development to local history and the foundation of local money. When you do that, you get the whole community for a buy in. EDO’s focus on statistical analysis and methods that can be proven.

The true foundation of economic development is an individual, who starts something, like a business, art, invention, a school, a community, a farm. Successful people do things because they believe in themselves.

The Core Values of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) are social responsibility and dedication to building just and competitive communities, the creation of wealth, equity and diversity. The feeder system should teach kids exactly that – and it is easy to do. There are endless stories in every local history that teach social responsibility, creation of wealth, diversity, empowering women, courage, character, giving back to the community, the importance of education, self study and truly understanding freedom and responsibility. We do this as parents, why not in a local curriculum?

The vision of the IEDC is to make economic prosperity and sustainable economic development,  to enhance the image of the Economic Development profession and to encourage the development of new products and services. By encouraging Economic Development professionals to be a catalyst in bringing a local history to a local curriculum, he or she would be doing just that. Mike achnowledges that you need a of faith, there are no statistics that prove a connection between  local history and economic development. It’s never been studied or analyzed. But by teaching and motivating kids, they can connect to the past because it does create intellectual stimulation and kids listen to wisdom. There is no need to design a local history. EDO’s can be a leader, a catalyst.

If you went to the history people with this kind of idea you will get a segment of your population that loves their community and has money and influence. When it becomes part of the school curriculum, now you have credibility. The local Chamber of Commerce can keep every kid up to date with skills the community needs. This is a new tool and the design of it has unlimited potential. You won’t have to twist anyone’s arm in any community to “sell” it. All you have to do is learn more about it, just like any other tool.


In response to the article, several discussion groups took up the subject, Al Jones out of Billings Montana says this:

What consistently surprises me in local histories is the genuine pioneer spirit of many of the current residents’ ancestors a couple of generations back. You find the town’s big public facilities and often it’s large employers or innovative ventures were locally financed, everyday people stepped up and bought bonds and gave what they had to create the hospital, the school system, the water treatment plant, fairgrounds, processing factories, roads, sewer systems, etc.. It fades away with the Great Depression for many reasons, most importantly for about 50 years 50-100% of the cost of local public infrastructure projects including hospitals airports, highways, rural power plants, irrigation pumping systems, campus expansions, etc. could magically come from the federal government just through effective whining or more correctly stated as grantwriting, lobbying, speechifying-extremely low cost investments by the community.

While that got a lot done it meant people could sit back and wait for external sources to take care of their personal, local needs and that greatly atrophied the capacity you see in the previous generations in each community. Dependency both keeps the local human capital mostly unrealized potential and squandered on trivial projects (like street festivals to boost tourism or a day’s retail/dining sales, much like the medieval serfs’ many holidays that distracted them from their bleak lives but didn’t change them.)

Their ancestors spent the same time getting a sawmill built, a food processing plant for local crops built, a new mine financed and underway, a high school financed and begun, a local college created, an airport built…the local histories can point out the opportunity costs and how remarkably quickly big local things were built in the same time as now we allocate to just vaguely talking about maybe doing something someday.

Local histories reliably reveal this and can be used as a rallying call, if your great-grand-parents and their parents and their parents got this, this, and this built from scratch here themselves, with little cash, little time, little expertise, and little technology, why can’t we get big things done here now?” When you point out it’s without electricity, without trucks or power tools, without myriad financing sources/tools, without access to engineers or design software, without the Internet to research and find markets and suppliers, they start to see again how few barriers to their big hairy audacious goals are truly in place.

In another response, Ross Spalding says that he read the article and thought that

while the premise is good ,its unlikely to work until someone gets the educators to think the same way! In California for example, the public schools kids are not taught to embrace wealth, create new businesses or  industries in their communities .In fact they are taught the opposite. Everything is about saving  the environment at any cost..No compromise! Says Ross

Eric Davis, Coordinator, Strategic Workforce Development at Allen Economic Development Group points out that

not only are local histories important for Economic Developers “know the territory” but they are essential in helping tell the community story to current and incoming businesses and industries. History also helps cross the agency boundaries as Economic Development evolves into more than just smoke stack chasing.

If you’re interested in creating a plan of action to embrace Local History in your Economic Development plans contact Mike Milkovich at

Thanks to Ed Burghard and of course to Mike Milkovich for posing this question and everyone that responded with comments and discussion. I think this kind of innovative discussion can help drive the profession and stimulate regional growth. You can read the full article at:

You can link to this Regional Business Talk podcast episode via:


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