The Politics of Economic Development – Employment, Underemployment & Goldilocks

By. Neil Williamson, President

targetTomorrow (April 11), the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development (TJPED) will release their highly anticipated regional targeted industry study.  This study will attempt to quantify the specific geographic and demographic assets each participating locality brings to the economic development table and synch those assets with industry sectors poised for expansion.

First and foremost, the Free Enterprise Forum sincerely appreciates the renewed regional attention economic development has received over the last 36 months.  As they say – there’s nothing like a recession to focus economic development activity.

Despite a deceptive low unemployment rate, too many in our region are doing less than they could.  We are most interested in the promised “underemployment” information in the TJPED report.  Based on significant anecdotal evidence, we believe our region has enormous untapped potential.  Further, we believe in some cases, regulatory red tape and hubris  is preventing citizens from finding employment that fully utilizes their capabilities.

Keep an ear open to what our elected officials say about the very real underemployment problem.  Beyond those who are underemployed, the problem trickles down as the underemployed are holding positions that might otherwise go to a more appropriately qualified applicant. 

The Free Enterprise Forum does not believe just moving the underemployed up in the job cue is nearly enough.

figure 1 jobs report 2011

Based on our initial employment analysis, the City of Charlottesville is perhaps facing the largest challenge.  The Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce 2011 Jobs Report indicated:

The City of Charlottesville has the 2nd largest private sector employment base within the Region in 2010 with 24,708 jobs. However, private sector employment in Charlottesville is 8.8% lower in 2010 than it was in 2000 (27,094), the 2nd worst overall private sector job growth performance in the Region. [Emphasis added-nw]

It will take political courage for leaders to question the goals of the TJPED study if it only focuses on the high end white collar jobs and fails to identify appropriate targeted industries for this underutilized population. 

While we have been eagerly awaiting the release of the TJPED study, we are equally interested in the specific feedback political leaders provide.  Philosophically discussing improving economic vitality is one thing but when you get down to the brass tacks of business sector identification, it is interesting to see the urgency shift.

Earlier this year in a discussion of the “fast track” process in Albemarle County, Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) suggested perhaps a distribution hub could qualify for a speedy application process.  Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) thought otherwise raising the environmental and traffic impacts of such a facility located within Albemarle’s urban ring.  He said that application probably would deserve EXTRA scrutiny based on potential impacts.

The Board of Supervisors even had a brief discussion last week on how to “receive” the report.  There was trepidation by some Board members that is they “accept” the report it would be akin to endorsing it.

This really speaks to the myriad of different perceptions of economic development. 

Position 1 might best be summed up by British Researcher and Author Richard Wilkerson who once suggested:

In its broadest ecological context, economic development is the development of more intensive ways of exploiting the natural environment.

Position 2 could be captured in Ronald Reagan’s quote regarding economic development. 

Reagan said:

We who live in free market societies believe that growth, prosperity and ultimately human fulfillment, are created from the bottom up, not the government down. Only when the human spirit is allowed to invent and create, only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success — only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, progressive, and free. Trust the people. This is the one irrefutable lesson of the entire postwar period contradicting the notion that rigid government controls are essential to economic development. [emphasis added-nw]

Position 3 – perhaps the “Goldilocks” perspective comes from Bill Clinton who  addressed a group of New York economic developers last September.

Clinton said a strong economy requires an effective government and one that will ask the right questions. He credited [Andrew] Cuomo for doing just that in New York.

Clinton said, “These regional economic groups you set up, the discipline, the thinking you had to undergo to ask ourselves, what are our problems and what are our assets? How can we develop the economy? How can we maximize our partnership with government? How much government do we need and what is the best way to pay for it? [emphasis added – nw]

As we examine this new study, the Free Enterprise Forum will be listening closely to elected leaders to hear which path – if any – they choose to stimulate economic vitality.

Respectfully submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.  For more information visit the website

Photo Credit:

Graphics Credit: Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce 2011 Jobs Report


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