COVID-19 and the Economic Development Community

The COVID-19 Crisis: How Can the Economic Development Community Respond?


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Invited panelist Wiley Blankenship, President/CEO of Coastal Alabama Partnership was called into meetings with local officials regarding COVID-19 and therefore could not participate in the webinar.

Key Points From the Webinar

Industry impacts vary greatly by state and community. Companies that are continuing to operate more or less normally are emphasizing employee safety, social distancing and frequent cleaning and sanitizing. 

Ways Economic Development Organizations Can Help

As COVID-19 spreads some economic development organizations (EDOs) are serving as information clearinghouses. Through conference calls, posting information, social media and emails they are disseminating information such as:

  • Closings, new business hours and meeting times;
  • Where to obtain business services such as cleaning or catering;
  • Where to obtain loans, grants and other assistance at the state and federal levels. 

Some businesses and organizations are helping support local restaurants by ordering catered meals for employees and staff. 

Some businesses are adapting to provide products in greater demand due to COVID-19. One example is a micro-distillery providing alcohol (gin actually!) to customers to make hand sanitizer. 

EDOs can help identify and secure facilities for expanding healthcare capacity including hospital beds. EDOs are often familiar with local companies and organizations that may have excess space, including public schools and colleges. 

When the economy recovers, there will be significant changes in many industries for many companies:

  • Increased emphasis on redundant suppliers;
  • Simplifying and contracting of some supply chains;
  • More re-shoring of suppliers and final production. 

Many EDOs already help local companies identify new markets, new suppliers, and other business opportunities, especially for smaller companies without the time and resources to do so themselves. With recovery and a changed business landscape, this service will be even more valuable. 

Internal marketing – keeping local officials and citizens aware of the benefits an EDO brings to the community – is important for continued community support. EDOs should demonstrate their value during the crisis in ways mentioned here and also stress the role they will play in restoring the economy when recovery comes. 

With the decline or disappearance of traditional activities such as recruiting and marketing, EDOs may have more time to do community and economic development strategic planning for the future. Such activity may also help local citizens focus on recovery and lift spirits. 


The COVID-19 outbreak has “turned tourism promotion on its head.” Tourism agencies around the world are sending the message that “we’re a great place to visit when things get back to normal but in the meantime stay home.” They don’t want tourists spreading the virus and getting sick while visiting, straining local healthcare resources. Tourism authorities, however, can focus on establishing a brand and message for their communities and service areas during the crisis: “stay home and stay safe, and plan your visit in the future to our great city with all the following things to do…” 

Rural communities can invite visitors to come enjoy outdoor recreation opportunities such as hiking and picnicking (since restaurants will be closed for all but perhaps carry-out) while maintaining social distancing protocols. Decreased revenues from hotel/motel and other visitor taxes may be a problem for tourism authorities funded from these sources and they should plan accordingly. When the COVID-19 situation abates, there may be pent-up demand for travel. Tourism agencies should plan for this and the possibility of reduced funding for promotion. 

Workforce Development 

Workforce development and enhancing the local labor supply has taken on great importance during the past few years of strong economic growth. Almost overnight, massive layoffs have created millions of unemployed workers. The competition for new investment will not be as closely tied to labor availability as it has been due to higher levels of unemployment in many communities. Workforce enhancement programs and techniques such as recruiting labor before industry will not be as relevant. 

However, there may be significant changes in industry composition after the recovery and therefore a greater need for labor training as workers move across industries. For example, Florida is anticipating that hospitality workers hurt by the downturn will migrate to other industries that are growing (e.g. online retailing). When the recovery comes, there may be a shortage of hospitality workers. Across the world, airlines, hotels and other travel/hospitality industries are laying off millions of workers and these industries may not return to pre-crisis levels for years or not at all. There will be new demands for workforce training as a result of these industry employment shifts. 

Also, the impact of the downturn on traditional training institutions such as technical colleges must be taken into account. How will the mix of in-person vs. on-line training be permanently altered? A new “infrastructure” problem may emerge as more remote learning increases the demand for better internet service and related hardware and software. The demand for VPN networks will increase significantly in the short run as employees work at home, and in the longer run if that trend continues after the recovery. 

Lasting Changes in Business Operations? 

Will the COVID-19 crisis cause a lasting change in work patterns as companies learn they can function effectively and reduce costs with more employees working remotely and less travel due to virtual meetings? In addition, as noted above, changes in supply chains and increased on-shoring may be a lasting effect of the COVID-19 virus. How will this change the operations and location decisions of companies? There may be opportunities for rural areas to attract more investment if businesses become less tied to larger population centers. 

Continuing the Conversation

The COVID-19 virus will continue to have profound effects on the daily lives of millions of citizens and businesses around the world. The only thing we can predict with certainty is that the situation will be ever-changing and community and economic development organizations will need to continuously adapt. 

This webinar is just the beginning of an on-going conversation on COVID-19 and economic development. The trademark of the Janus Institute and Janus Forum is peer learning – sharing experiences, information and techniques to make all economic development professionals more productive. 

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