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All Economic Development, All the Time

Bill Taft, the longtime executive director of LISC Indianapolis, has been named senior vice president of economic development for LISC and will be spearheading our work to grow enterprises and create jobs in the places that need them. In the following Q&A, he talks strategy, practice and what it takes to build inclusive local economies in real life.

LISC: Our work in Indianapolis is really the prototype for the new economic development strategy that we’re rolling out across our network. Can you describe what it was like to walk through an Indianapolis neighborhood before you began investing there, and what it’s like now?

Bill: The neighborhood that jumps to mind is Fountain Square, which has a commercial district with a mix of industrial, retail and old entertainment buildings. When LISC started partnering with the CDC in in that community about 20 years ago, there were lots of vacant store fronts and buildings in poor condition, and there were very few people on the sidewalks.

The businesses that were there were either hanging on from a past era, or they were often predatory enterprises, like pay-day loan and rent-to-own appliance shops. The area was not an asset to the community—it didn’t meet daily resident needs or create a lot of jobs, and it certainly didn’t attract anybody to the neighborhood. 

And today?

Today, it’s a bustling commercial district with 24/7 activity. There are upgraded buildings that house new and growing businesses offering more amenities to the people who live in the community. There are also entertainment venues, restaurants and specialty retail or service providers that draw people from all over the region.

And there are many people who live in the neighborhood who work in Fountain Square. It’s now a point of pride for the neighborhood. And people in the region recognize the area for its economic vibrancy.

The Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis that made a dramatic turnaround from market failure to stability to destination zone.
The Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis that made a dramatic turnaround from market failure to stability to destination zone.

In a nutshell, what is LISC’s new economic development strategy, and what does it take to enact it.

LISC is partnering with economic development groups and community-based organizations to identify strategies that will include the people and places that have been left out of the regional economy. We’re aiming to help grow businesses and create jobs in the places that need them in three ways.

First, we’re working at the regional level to figure out what economic opportunities exist for residents of historically underinvested communities—urban and rural—and helping reposition those communities so that businesses can tap into the talent and assets there.

Second, it means equipping the people who live in or near those places to have the skills and relationships to connect to those growing employment opportunities.

And third, it’s helping the businesses that are in, or moving to, that neighborhood to access the capital, the workforce and the technical expertise that enables them to grow.

How does that differ from how we’ve worked in the past?

It certainly builds on past neighborhood-level relationships and neighborhood level-strategy. What’s different is that we’re taking a bigger picture look at the work. We’re connecting to regional organizations, and employing a regional strategy, in order to achieve those neighborhood-level goals. It’s that connection to the broader economic development ecosystem that’s new.

With that comes new demands. Our job-training work needs to be more robust and focused on specific growth areas, and guided by the needs of employers to make sure that job applicants have both the specific technical and soft skills necessary to succeed. And our district development work needs to be more on point with our broader mission goals, fostering the success of businesses that will be able to tap into local and global opportunities and employ more people from the community.

“What’s different is that we’re taking a bigger picture look at the work.”

So what does all this mean for our local offices?

Part of it is adapting long-standing relationships and tools to be more focused on economic and workforce development outcomes. It means upskilling our own staff to do that work. And it involves building new relationships that focus on that kind of work.

How do you envision the Opportunity Zones (OZ) program affecting this strategy in the communities where we work?

I think it has the potential to bring more private capital and resources to neighborhoods where there are good economic growth opportunities. As an organization, we are in a position to help ensure that the projects brought forward are both inclusive of the people and places we care about and that are part of a well-thought out local strategy that will make them more likely to succeed.

Are you optimistic about how this could bolster our new economic development strategy?

I’m optimistic that it will attract capital to our communities because it’s already doing that. We’re getting phone calls from investors looking to start work on this already. It has the potential to make long-standing tools to catalyze investment more effective—like several Federal and State tax credits that have been difficult to use in post-industrial local markets.

But what I think is particularly exciting is that there’s a lot of local wealth with a pent-up interest in creating a more inclusive economy. The OZs could be the tool that gets those people to invest locally. They can see that it has both a social and an economic benefit in the community.

What’s different about the OZ program is that it involves a truly decentralized decision-making and capital-structuring and investment process. We’re in a place to say, “It’s kind of a wild west out there, folks. You want to invest where you know you’re going to have a positive impact. So you should work with us, and with the communities and businesses that are our partners.” LISC can be the safe harbor for investors in a completely unstructured environment. We can be very proactive and draw people to invest in a pool that’s going to make a real difference in our communities.

Since taking up your new position, has anything changed in your life?

I am accumulating a lot of frequent-flier miles!  My primary job is to help local LISC offices adapt their current tools and relationships to become a local leader in inclusive economic development, so I am really getting to know the range of cities where LISC is making this happen. 

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