Economic development is a hot topic these days. With the economy continuing to chug along in robust fashion and unemployment approaching historic lows, communities are refining their objectives and priorities to eek every drop of benefit they can from these financially strong times.

Nowhere is this focus greater than with "quality of place." As cities and states think about how they can distinguish themselves from their peers, a common starting point is developing a strategy around the type of demographic they want to attract. Beginning this process by first determining what an area wants to be is a critical first step.

Elected officials sometimes make the mistake of proclaiming what they think their quality of place is or should be without considering what is actually desirable and achievable for their location and culture. This misstep can be especially prevalent in smaller communities. In an attempt to woo targeted industries, cities and towns sometimes market their communities as something they’re not. Worse yet, they try to be something they’re not, spending resources trying to compete with markets that are not their natural peers.

What makes up quality of place? Much of it is in the eye of the beholder, but, as site selection consultants, the following are some of the common traits we assess when evaluating a community’s vitality:

  • Density: Are businesses, amenities, and housing options concentrated in a central area? Conversely, is there too much density?
  • Diversity: Is there a diverse population that will enhance workforce options for employers and contribute to a richer culture? 
  • Accessibility and transportation: Is it easy to move to and from key destinations within the area, whether it be places of employment, restaurants, parks, or shopping?
  • Cultural attraction: Does the community have cultural amenities that appeal to a wider demographic, and more specifically to the community’s target demographic?
  • Cost of living: How expensive is it to own a home, rent, purchase necessities, or own a car? 

As one considers this list, it’s easy to see how quality of place can mean very different things depending on the area. Issues such as density and accessibility will hold varying levels of importance for specific types of companies, projects, and communities. Likewise, a desirable culture may hold a different meaning for rural areas compared to urban locations.

Communities often evaluate their quality of place by focusing on their strengths. But attention should focus just as much on real or perceived weaknesses. Every community, even the most desirable, has a list of areas that need work. Some of these are inherent to a location and can never be successfully resolved. For example, no locale in the Hoosier state will be the nation’s leader in construction of ski chalets or oceanfront homes. But that doesn’t prevent every city and region from being constructively critical about its soft spots.

Areas that master quality of place develop a strategy of knowing who they are, embracing their strengths, and setting doable, desirable goals to build on assets.

Indianapolis, for example, developed a quality-of-place strategy decades ago that eventually came to fruition and continues to be refined. Over the course of many mayoral administrations, the city created a downtown symbiotic based on sports and conventions as attractions. Now, with that strategy firmly in place and flourishing, Indy has leveraged its burgeoning downtown to find success in the tech industry. Many recent projects in this space, including the Salesforce and Infosys deals, are objective proof of this winning approach. The quality of place Indianapolis has built around downtown has been an indispensable part of this strategy.

Now, in the wake of the city’s strong showing in Amazon’s HQ2 search, Indianapolis has a unique opportunity. It can tout its top 20 finish while making refinements to its quality-of-place initiatives so that it is more competitive in attracting the talent necessary to compete for future projects.  

Strong quality of place can’t be achieved as an afterthought. Nor can it be achieved when our heads are in the sand. It requires planning, self-awareness, discipline, vision, resources, and commitment. But if done right, it can reap huge benefits.