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Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise blog post:

What’s best for a local economy—recruiting big, established companies, or nurturing home-grown startups? It’s a question economic developers and researchers have grappled with for decades. In a new white paper and Economic Development Quarterly article, Carolina Planning Professor Nichola Lowe and Kenan Institute Senior Faculty Fellow Maryann Feldman offer a new tack: Try both.


From competing to coordinating
While both industrial recruitment and entrepreneurship can be beneficial, economic developers have tended to pursue one at the expense of the other. The two approaches, seen as opposite arms of the field of economic development, generally involve different assumptions, goals, resources and expertise. Interest in each approach has waxed and waned over the decades as researchers have learned more about the factors that drive growth.

Feldman and Lowe posit that by employing both approaches in a strategic mix, developers can create an integrated portfolio that is greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s not just about diversification, the researchers say, but actually interlacing strategies so they build on each other. For example, economic developers can take practices that have been traditionally used to lure established industry and reorient them toward anchoring and supporting high-growth entrepreneurial firms. This can help to not only foster startups, but keep them from heading for greener pastures as they mature.

Startups and established firms also have a lot to gain from each other, and economic developers can play the role of matchmaker in helping to connect companies with strategic partners or suppliers in their area. Combining development expertise from both arms of the field can also help the recruitment of mid-stage firms that don’t fit the mold of either a traditional startup or established industry.

No time like the present, no place like here.

In some ways, federal agencies already take a portfolio approach in their support for technology innovation. But the state and local level is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to shepherding federally-funded technologies from inception to market. As a result, the need for policy experimentation to support economic activity is often greatest and most immediate at the local level.

The local level is also where experimentation can reap the greatest rewards, according to Feldman and Lowe. By considering a more integrated, multifaceted approach, they suggest state and local governments can potentially increase their regional innovative capacity and enhance the public return from federal and state investment in technology development.

In addition, the researchers argue that now is an opportune time to consider a blended strategy. In the wake of the Great Recession and in the midst of ongoing economic restructuring, economic developers are often expected to solve complex problems with fewer resources at their disposal. Strategy mixing offers a means for practitioners to do more with less by working together to better coordinate and sequence economic support.

Of course, economic development strategies are not limited to industrial recruitment and entrepreneurial support. Another strength of a portfolio approach is that it offers a way to address evolving objectives—addressing rising income inequality or adapting to climate change, for example—or to incorporate novel economic development strategies.


Read the white paper: 

Common Ground: How to pursue a mixed strategy for economic development and come out ahead

Citation: Lowe, N., & Feldman, M. P. (2018) Common Ground: How to pursue a mixed strategy for economic development and come out ahead.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

Journal article:

Breaking the Waves: Innovating at the Intersections of Economic Development

Citation: Lowe, N., & Feldman, M. P. (2018). Breaking the waves: Innovating at the intersections of economic development.
Economic Development Quarterly, 32(3), 183 – 194. Retrieved from

Kenan Institute Building

Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise

Established in 1985 by Frank Hawkins Kenan, the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise is a nonpartisan business policy think tank affiliated with the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. The nonprofit institute and its affiliated centers convene leaders from the private sector, academic community and government to build a greater understanding of how entrepreneurship, economic development and global commerce can work for the public good. The institute leverages best-in-class research to develop market-based solutions to today’s most complex economic challenges. In doing so, the institute aims to support businesses and policies that better the lives of people in North Carolina, across the country and around the world.

Nichola Lowe
Associate Professor, Carolina Planning
Dr. Lowe’s work focuses on the institutional arrangements that lead to more inclusive forms of economic development and, specifically, the role that practitioners can play in aligning growth and equity goals.

Maryann P. Feldman
S.K. Heninger Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, UNC College of Arts & Sciences
Professor of Finance, UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

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