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Reflections on the 50th anniversary of the Economic Development Administration

John E. Corrigan, Former Philadelphia Office Regional Director 1972-82 and 1985-98, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations 1982-85

This year marks the Fiftieth anniversary of the Public Works and Economic Development Act of 1965 (PWEDA).

I feel privileged to be asked to share my thoughts about EDA and its accomplishments.

Although it has been 17 years since I left EDA, the work that EDA has done is fresh in my mind and close to my heart.

When I began my career in economic development in the late 1960s, there was no formal economic development profession. Development around the country was led by utility companies and real estate professionals. There have been many changes over these last fifty years. Of course, one of the big changes was in our economy. It changed from an industrial economy to an information economy and then to a service economy. That had a large impact on the kind of economic development projects that were built.

As to the effectiveness of EDA, shortly before I left EDA, a consortium of research institutions , led by Rutgers University, completed a comprehensive performance evaluation of EDA’s Public Investment Program. The study looked at every construction project for the previous several years. The results were very impressive.

Ninety nine percent of projects were completed as planned, 91% were completed on time and 52% were completed under budget. Furthermore the cost of creating or retaining a job—in EDA funds—was $3,058. Every EDA dollar leveraged $10.08 in private sector funding and increased the tax base by $10.13.

Over its history EDA has created thousands of jobs and spurred millions in private sector investment. But that is not EDA’s proudest achievement. The greatest achievement of all is that EDA has created the Economic Development Profession. EDA has created the profession through its funding of District staff and the early days of the 302(a) program when we funded an economic development staff in virtually every state and every major city in the country. Because of that, most of them, for the first time, had an economic development capacity. Thirty years ago there were virtually no graduate courses in economic development in this country and hardly any articles in professional journals. Through EDA’s Research and Technical Assistance programs, we have funded the thinkers and theorists who are developing the ideas that will influence the national development process and will create the leaders of tomorrow.

On a personal note, the EDA that I remember was characterized by a culture of collaboration. We were taught that we were in the business of creating wealth for our communities and our people. We all believed that the applicant should receive the VIP treatment. Even if we reluctantly said “no”, the applicant felt that he or she was treated fairly and well.

Before Southwest Airlines developed its mission statement—“Our mission is customer service and we also happen to fly planes”. That is the way EDA worked.

How often in my career did I hear complaints like: “It is a nightmare to deal with X agency or Y agency”. I never heard that said about EDA.

When EDA staff worked with applicants, they were the co-creators of the project always asking: ”How can we make the project better”?

Our staff believed and practiced Servant Leadership. Their first responsibility was to serve and through that service to lead.

How else can you explain how this little agency, when given the mission to approve $6 billion in Local Public Works projects in 1976/77 did it flawlessly. The Philadelphia Regional Office in that 12 month period approved 3000 projects for $2.3 billion—averaging 15 approved projects every business day.

Another hallmark of my EDA experience was a culture of maximum delegation not found in other federal agencies. The Regional Director had immediate access to the Assistant Secretary and decisions to fund projects were often made by one phone call. The result of such delegation led Regional Directors, in turn, to grant maximum delegation to their staff which resulted in a highly efficient organization, where project officers and Economic Development Representatives were greatly empowered.

Final thoughts--If you wish success in your career, do not be a bureaucrat—be a problem solver. You should frequently hear applicants say to you, “You have been very helpful to us”.

Answer every phone call or email message the day you receive it. Think of ways to say “yes” rather than “no”. Think of applicants as part of your team. Remember that each of you is a leader and that leadership is a verb not a noun. It is active not passive.

And the work of economic development is never done. Those of us who are privileged to work in the economic development arena should be profoundly grateful for the gift we have received which is: To Do This Work. For we are not only investing in projects but people. We believe that human capital is the only investment with the potential for unlimited returns and for exponential growth. I used to frequently remind my staff: “We are blessed to be doing this work.” I have personally felt that way for the past 46 years. What job is as important and rewarding as this, where you are doing among the most satisfying work in the world-- assisting people to create wealth and ultimately happiness.