I admit feeling equally excited and petrified about my Master’s Project to establish an innovation district in Elizabeth City, NC—a place I learned existed just this past September. Last fall, the team running the innovation initiative at The Sanford School of Public Policy invited me to attend a press conference covering the launch of InnovateNC, a two-year, learning collaborative tasked with establishing innovation ecosystems for its participant cities. InnovateNC is run by The Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University in partnership with nine other public, private and nonprofit entities, one of which is Duke’s Sanford School.
After an application process, five cities spread across North Carolina were chosen for the program; however, Elizabeth City was not among those selected. Notwithstanding, the preliminary organizational efforts for the application by key stakeholders in the city laid the groundwork for a promising implementation of the program. I reached out to city leadership, and soon I found myself driving to a place I had never been to explain to the local economic development commission how I would provide for them, as part of the requirements for my graduation, an economic asset map of the region and recommendations to stimulate local entrepreneurship and innovation.
Like I said: equally excited and petrified.
Luckily, I had the support of the InnovateNC partners who provided me guidance in developing a strategic plan for innovation, asset-mapping techniques and best practices from prior innovation-stimulant programs. The most useful data came from surveying key stakeholders in the community. This was a laborious process which spanned several weeks and required four separate site visits. From it I gathered an insight into the complexity of fostering community-wide entrepreneurship and innovation.
To my surprise, my misgivings about the capabilities of rural communities to understand and act in their best interests proved unfounded. The city not only had the organizational capacity but the willingness to make the changes necessary to create an enabling environment for entrepreneurs and innovators. Some of my recommendations to further this process included taking steps to establish a local Entrepreneurship and Innovation Council, subsidizing a business incubator space/innovation hub, and providing tax credits to local small businesses. I also recommend they coordinate the efforts of regional educational institutions, implement a transportation initiative and enact affordable-housing policies.
However, I became curious as to why the city wasn’t experiencing the desired economic uptick it seemed to be so clearly intent on accomplishing thus far, a question that led me to examine statewide policies. The state’s current strategy of keeping tax rates low to encourage industrial recruitment ignores the local workforce capacity, infrastructure and amenities that industries require. Elizabeth City suffers from these types of lop-sided policies which favor big businesses while neglecting the needs of local citizenry.
For example, HB 129 makes it all but impossible for municipalities to provide broadband connectivity to their communities, protecting established broadband providers like Time Warner and CenturyLink. This law creates an anti-competitive market for consumers, and rural areas struggling to bring necessary, digital communications infrastructure to their communities are thus put at an economic disadvantage.
This is not to say that the state does not fund initiatives that stimulate entrepreneurship and innovation. It does, both directly and indirectly, but my research showed a lack exposure to these programs and other incentives available to young entrepreneurs. The state must do a better job ensuring that these types of programs are reaching the people they purport to benefit. Moreover, it is the state’s responsibility to enact policies that avoid the zero-sum game of incentivizing large businesses while neglecting the vulnerabilities of upstarts.
Crops don’t appear just because the soil is fertile. They need water, sun and a love to bear fruit. My takeaway from this experience is that no amount of blanket tax-incentives will transform local innovation economies if communities lack globally-competitive infrastructure and education. It’s up to the public to hold politicians accountable for empty promises to would-be entrepreneurs, innovators and the communities that host them.