Reports & Toolkits

Strong Economies, Resilient Counties: The Role of Counties in Economic Development

Counties are responsible for providing core services such as human services, criminal justice, public welfare and infrastructure to communities of all sizes across America. To ensure the delivery of these essential services, support job growth and maintain a healthy revenue base, counties invest in economic development activities in a number of ways. An examination of county involvement, challenges and solutions in economic development across the 3,069 counties shows that:

  • Counties are sponsors of local economic development initiatives. Funding--often from general funds--is the most common county contribution to economic development partnerships. More than 90 percent of county governments engage in economic development initiatives, but only 57 percent of counties have a county department managing economic development initiatives. Counties most typically focus on workforce training, business attraction and retention, and regional marketing in their economic development partnerships. Additionally, counties collaborate with other stakeholders to promote broader resiliency goals.
  • Workforce challenges are at the top of the county economic development agenda. Unemployment or underemployment is the most common challenge across counties (more than 80 percent of responding counties), followed closely by shortage of skilled workers (74 percent of responding counties) and the inability to attract and retain a young workforce (73 percent of responding counties). Maintaining a resilient economy with a diversified and competitive business environment is also a significant concern for counties. As major owners of infrastructure, counties deal directly with infrastructure challenges that affect the development and competitiveness of their local economies.
  • Collaboration is the key to county economic development intiatives.  County economic development intiatives capitalize on the networks of public, nonprofit and private partners necessary for successful local economic development. This research developed 35 case studies of county economic development initiatives from around the country, featuring a wide range of activities from workforce training, regional marketing and business recruitment and retention to infrastructure financing, small business support, business incubators, disaster preparedness, industry diversification and international economic development. While each initiative solves an economic development problem within the framework of specific local resources and constraints, these case studies highlight some of the current county practices in economic development worthy of replication.

Click below for an interactive map with county case studies

About Dr. Emilia Istrate (Full Bio)

Managing Director, NACo Counties Futures Lab

As NACo Counties Future Lab managing director, Emilia Istrate leads policy analysis, analytics and knowledge sharing efforts, as well as thought leadership to support and advance the interests of county governments. She is part of NACo’s executive leadership team.

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