Editor’s Note: Darrene Hackler is a consultant and a senior advisor with Smart Incentives. Darrene brings economic development expertise in economic equity and inclusive growth, entrepreneurship and small business, and innovation. She helps policy makers, economic developers, and foundations build partnerships that can strengthen local economic development ecosystems through strategic plans, policy analysis, incentives analysis, and technical assistance. For more information contact Darrene@SmartIncentives.org and follow her @dhackler and @SmartIncentives.

  • Equity is the big challenge facing community and local economic development. Everywhere, there are some people and some neighborhoods that are left out or left behind no matter how strong the economy. In the face of economic dislocations like the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, these disparities are amplified.
  • If you are a Mayor, city council, or local economic development official, and you’re wrestling with how to make sure you’re making equitable growth possible, here are three concrete steps you should be taking. 
  1. Engage residents to determine priorities and share data to clearly define the nature of economic challenges that residents confront.
  2. Work together with residents to design efforts and programs that address the identified challenges and priorities.
  3. Co-create quantifiable measures of performance to demonstrate progress, share the responsibility of data collection with community organizations, and regularly report on outcomes and impacts to build trust and make modifications.

Today’s policy makers and economic developers are confronting severe economic disruptions. Many places that have never recovered losses suffered during the Great Recession now fear greater income and housing disparities and unequal opportunities as they face the “40-year” global macroeconomic after-effects of COVID-19.  My firm, Smart Incentives, works with communities to achieve equitable targeted development goals and helps them create pathways to opportunity and prosperity that include all community members. 

The Pew Charitable Trusts asked us to take a closer look at the successes and failures of equitable development efforts across the nation. We looked at more than 50 such efforts and carefully profiled four in-depth to develop our findings. Our report, Reflecting Community Priorities In Economic Development Practices, offers today’s leaders tools to address inequitable economic conditions and adapt their economic development efforts so that more of their residents prosper. The efforts suggest the need for a broad range voices to be at the table—residents, community groups, businesses, philanthropies, economic developers, and governments—working together to co-design their economic futures. 

We suggest that equitable and inclusive development is outcome-driven for residents and begins by prioritizing community engagement and clearly linking that engagement to actionable initiatives with measurable results. This is a challenge facing nearly every city government and community leader because often these efforts must include recognizing the inequitable results of past policies and taking active efforts to rebuild community trust. Our work profiles how those stakeholders are seeking and finding common ground, before lawsuits are filed or projects are cancelled.   

We break our insights into a Determine-Design-Evaluate framework to profile how governments and communities can work together effectively to ensure that a community’s goals and priorities are reflected in economic development efforts and create equitable and inclusive outcomes. 



Equitable community engagement practices acknowledge a shared history and often coalesce around data-driven findings that establish a common understanding of today’s challenges. They move engagement from a process to inform residents to a forum centered on listening, learning, partnering, and empowering the community to be part of the decision-making process—long advised by Sherry Arnstein and International Association for Public Participation. Both residents and organizations slowly engage more voices as trust and respect are built. Sustaining trust and respect requires that people’s time, expertise, and contributions are valued (and compensated financially).  


Residents tend to offer a more holistic view of what can make their communities better. Responsive, holistic programs and policies must not rely exclusively on narrow individual government agencies’ or departments’ work plans to achieve community priorities. Cross-government and external partnerships that engage civic societies, the private sector, and anchor institutions across the community are usually necessary to make desired progress on community priorities. These efforts are place conscious, people-centric, and expand business and economic initiatives to reach small neighborhood businesses, overcoming the problems of place-based financial-centric strategies highlighted by Josh Goodman. In addition, appropriate resources should be devoted to continued engagement, program design, and implementation. 


We call for a new set of in-between indicators that are just right”, using metrics, key performance indicators, dashboards, and annual reports that engage community partners in the data collection and provide meaningful transparency and accountability for economic development efforts and equitable engagement processes. Skepticism of glossy reports that “sell” results has led to more serious attempts to measure and report on outcomes achieved on behalf of the community. Our scan of proposed measurement and evaluation structures suggests that much data will be collected and disseminated, but many communities will still struggle to provide high-quality, valuable reporting that will truly inform residents about how communities are changing in line with their priorities. Thoughtful and effective storytelling can also be a useful addition to “just right” formal metrics by providing relatable, tangible examples that connect programs and policies to community priorities.  

Reflecting Community Priorities In Economic Development Practices exhibits the various determine-design-evaluate methods that can guide investments that actively address historical inequities of economic development and engender greater trust after years of divisiveness with surrounding communities.