Making the Economic Development Process Accessible to Students

This post is part of the Urban Affairs Forum Engaged Scholarship Series.  If you are interested in writing about local elections in the places you live or study, contact Andrea Benjamin at

By Davia Cox Downey

Economic development is a complex process by which local entities compete for development projects. Theory development in this area has ranged from descriptions of the economies of corporate clustering, transportation cost networks, central place theory, growth machine theory, and transaction cost theories to name a few.  While these theoretical perspectives provide a basis for understanding “why” cities need economic development to survive in a highly competitive, fractured metropolitan space, these theories do little to show students the “how” of economic development decision-making.  I use a classroom exercise to illustrate the process of economic development. Traditionally, I have used the city of East Lansing, a small midwestern city with issues of town and gown relations, but this assignment can be retrofitted to a city of any size.

To make these processes more realistic and tangible for students, I developed an activity which requires students to analyze and propose an economic development project for a city. Using a traditional Strength Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats analysis approach groups of students are given a parcel of land in a town of the instructors choosing. For this project, students are split into groups of four to five and must gather data from various places on city websites, the census, and comprehensive plans to complete the project paper. Students are also responsible for creating a PowerPoint and oral presentation and I often ask local economic development officials (planners, directors, and finance directors) to attend these presentations to provide real-world feedback to students. The four areas required in the project are outlined below.

Zoning and Land Use. Zoning laws and land use ordinances can make or break an economic development proposal. Land Use and Zoning regulations not only impact where certain economic activities can occur in a locality, but they can also dissuade certain developers from proposing projects in an area if the land use regulations are particularly burdensome. Students are required to identify the zoning classification of the assigned parcel, any zoning or land use restrictions, and to identify any easements that might need to be approved for their project to be completed.

Economic Development. This aspect of the project requires students to review master planning documents and the comprehensive plan of the city. Comprehensive planning follows a process to identify the interconnecting issues that affect a municipality. These plans set out long-term goals and are the result of data collection and community input. Relevant data on local consumer behavior and an exploration of the types of activities that are present in adjacent parcels are required in the final report.

Financial Incentives. Tax increment financing has long been a cornerstone of economic development by localities all over the United States, state and regional authorities frequently will provide additional incentives for certain types of businesses and enterprises. Students must look at the Comprehensive Financial Annual Report to determine the city’s reliance on development incentives for their final project.

Urban Design. Many cities across the United States also have many urban design guidelines that impact economic development proposals in addition to traditional zoning laws. For example, in the city of East Lansing, there is a Public Art Ordinance 1399 which requires an arts commission to review proposed public art which accompanies” any developer’s site plan application to ensure whether public art complies with the city’s cultural expression aims. While this seems fairly innocuous on the surface, deep reading of the policy shows that any sculptures, painting, mosaics, and architectural aspects of building construction fall under this review.

Student reception of this project has largely been positive. Some examples from student evaluations of this specific project range from statements like, “I liked the incorporation of real-world applications, such as the neighborhood associations and the official from East Lansing coming in to give feedback on our presentations. It was exciting and fun to see how he viewed our suggestions and understand some of the issues that would come up if we were presenting to a city council since he actually was in the field.” “ [This project] challenged students to think and act in new ways….Therefore, I am glad I waited to complete the evaluation until after class finished. Without knowing, she began to train us to act in ways we will face in real world situations.”

For professors looking to engage students in a real-world simulation of proposing an economic development project to a municipality, creating a comprehensive group project, such as this one will pay dividends in keeping student’s interests and highlight the interdisciplinary nature of economic development.


Author Biography

Davia Cox Downey is the MPA Program Coordinator and an Associate Professor of Public Administration at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in local politics, public policy and public administration at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Recent publications include, “Sudden Versus Slow Death of Cities: New Orleans and Detroit”, co-authored with Laura A. Reese in the DuBois Review: Social Science Research on Race; “Disaster Recovery in Black and White: A Comparison of New Orleans and Gulfport” in the American Review of Public Administration; and an edited book, Cities and Disasters (Taylor & Francis/CRC Press), published in 2015.

Professor Downey holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Michigan State University (2011), a Masters of Public Administration from Eastern Michigan University (2005) and a BA in Music Performance with a concentration in Human Services from Albion College (1999). She has sat on several community boards including, the Non-Conforming Use Committee, Community Development Advisory Committee and Housing Commission for the city of East Lansing which she currently serves as chair.  She also serves as a board member of the Voters Not Politicians Ballot Committee campaign seeking to reform the redistricting process in the state of Michigan.



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