Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Night 33° Partly Cloudy
News >  Business

Needed: better global positioning

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review

Spokane is in a dogfight with 15,000 other communities in the United States for new economic development, and several multiples of that number worldwide. James Johnson Jr. says only the entrepreneurial will thrive.

Johnson, from the University of North Carolina, Friday gave a powerful presentation on the challenges facing the U.S. to an audience of Whitworth College students and faculty, and a few members of the Spokane community at-large. It was a talk far more people should have heard, even community and business leaders already aware we are in a race for our economic lives.

Johnson holds a variety of positions at UNC’s Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise, including an endowed professorship in management, and a position as director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center. He specializes in community economic development, and the effects of shifting global demographics. He was brought to Whitworth as part of an ongoing relationship with the Bethel A.M.E. Church focused on community action. Johnson was the man for their message.

Spokane and other U.S. cities large and small have some adjusting to do as countries like China and India stretch their economic muscle, he says. The economic horizon no longer ends at the water.

“This is the Asian Century,” Johnson says. “They are going to clean our clocks if we don’t figure out how to compete.”

More than five million blue-collar jobs have been exported since 1979, Johnson says, and another 1.4 million white collar jobs may follow by 2015. He estimates 14 million jobs — 11 percent of all U.S. jobs — are vulnerable.

In biotechnology, for example, India has already created a “Genome Valley” with the goal of achieving pre-eminence in that budding industry. Will Washington, if the Legislature endorses Gov. Christine Gregoire’s $350 biotech initiative, be eating the dust of Andhra Pradesh state in India?

Johnson says communities should try to make cultural and economic connections with cities outside the U.S., then leverage the relationships into mutually beneficial economic ties. Sister City relationships like those Spokane has with cities in Ireland, Japan and Korea are a good start, but only a start.

Corporations considering expansion can sort the fit communities from the feckless using just a few measures, says Johnson, who adds that a city Web site often tells him all he needs to know. Corporations look first at infrastructure investment, especially in telecommunications capability that connect them to everywhere in the world.

Secondly, they look at the investment in education, with per pupil expenditures the handiest benchmark. As an aside, Johnson slights American education for holding fast to a model that is a holdover from industrial societies. Freeing student imaginations, not forcing uniformity, should be the new approach, he says.

“You must allow kids to think crazy thoughts,” he says.

Johnson also stresses investment in what he calls “mediating institutions” like YMCAs and YWCAs that help minimize a community’s racial and ethnic divides. He believes “soft skills” — how individuals present themselves — are as prized by employers as more measurable attributes like academic performance. The best employees can thrive in the suite, and on the street.

The U.S., Johnson says, is browning thanks to an influx of immigrants, and graying as the existing population ages. The latter depend on the former, he says.

“If we are anti-immigrant, we are in deep yogurt,” Johnson says, adding that the shift towards a largely non-white population in the U.S. is irreversible. Yet the post-9/11 tightening of immigration standards has hurt the U.S. because elite foreign students once recruited by domestic companies are being turned away.

Besides the ongoing threat of terrorism, the U.S. faces risks from economic globalization, as well as the globalization of disease outbreaks, tsunami-like natural disasters, and fiscal crisis.

Uncertainty, insecurity and turbulence will be constants. Just an increase in the security level by the Department of Homeland Security costs the U.S. economy $12 billion, he says.

And given the preoccupation in Washington, D.C., with those issues, Johnson says, states, cities and towns are on their own as they look for the tools for success.

“Communities are a lot like private institutions,” Johnson says. “They have to compete.

“The only choice we have is to be more entrepreneurial.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.