Five Top Economic Development PR Successes of 2017

By April Mason

Keeping track of 2017’s economic development news stories was no easy task—and I do this for a living! Between the new president, rising stock market, #metoo movement and record number of natural disasters, the 24/7 news cycle was overwhelming for most of us.  

Based on factors including creativity, strength of the story, responsiveness to the news cycle and influence, here is my top five list of 2017’s economic development public relations successes: 

1. The Curious Case of the Billion Dollar Cactus  

When Amazon announced it was seeking a second headquarters location in September 2017, cities across North America jumped into the bidding frenzy. To set itself apart, Tucson, Arizona’s economic development group, Sun Corridor, Inc., sent the retail giant a 21-foot cactus to lure Jeff Bezos to the Southwest—a decision that would mean 50,000 new jobs and $5 billion in local investment. 

Amazon later sent a tweet about the over-sized cactus that read, "Unfortunately we can't accept gifts (even really cool ones)." The cactus was donated to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  

But it hardly matters. Tucson’s prickly present generated tons of press and let international corporations know the city was open for new business. 

Note: Though other cities including Birmingham and Kansas City also garnered media attention for creative PR tactics, Tucson was first—meaning the metro was included in nearly every national story about the horse race.

 2. Pittsburgh: From Smokestacks to Sustainability 

After decades of job losses, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, quietly transformed from a declining steel town to an economic hot spot. The metro of 1.2 million now has more jobs than it did during the steel heyday, with recent investments from Uber, Facebook and Google.

The city’s commitment to science, research and green technology went unnoticed by many outside the region, but things changed in June 2017 when President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, saying, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” 

There was just one problem: Pittsburgh was pro-Paris agreement. Bill Peduto, mayor of Pittsburgh, later tweeted, “I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy & future.” 

Through widespread news coverage including a New York Times op-ed penned by the Mayors of Pittsburgh and Paris, the world soon learned that Pittsburgh had been adhering to the Paris Agreement before the agreement was even in place. It’s home to hundreds of LEED-certified developments–including 12 of the nation’s first green buildings. With 13,000 clean-energy workers today, Pittsburgh is on track to be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2035.

3. The Gem State Shows It’s a Diamond in the Rough at SelectUSA  

Given President Trump’s promise to bring jobs to rural America and Idaho’s foreign investment wins, the Gem State sparkled at the nation's only economic development conference for international investors.   

Following 2016’s SelectUSA conference, Japan-based Sakae Casting chose Idaho Falls for its first U.S. office. So, in 2017, we arranged for Idaho to hold a press conference on the floor of the Summit to invite foreign businesses to Idaho to see why the state is outshining its competitors.  

Takashi Suzuki, CEO of Sakae Casting, joined Lt. Governor Brad Little to woo investors and press. The event, which captured the attention of the trade show floor due to its size, sound and free Budweiser beer, resulted in an NPR Marketplace feature and in-depth coverage from Manchini News reporter, Kenji Shimuzu, who later traveled to Idaho for his story.  

 4. A Revival Story: Newark, NJ, Rises from the Ashes with Transformative Leadership 

“New mayor promises to turn around the state’s largest city.” It’s an all-too-familiar headline for residents of the Garden State. But 2017 proved it’s different this time. 

Mayor-turned-Senator, Cory Booker, laid the groundwork for the revitalization of Newark. Now, Mayor Ras J. Baraka is delivering on his predecessor’s promise. New investors have poured around $1.7 billion into residential, commercial and industrial projects in the city. The former Hahne & Company department store has been reborn as a bustling development of 160 new apartments, the city’s first Whole Foods, a Marcus Samuelsson restaurant and a 50,000-square-foot “arts incubator.”

Eye-popping media attention followed: In 2017, Newark was profiled in the New York Postas "the next Brooklyn" and by none other than Vogue magazine for its renaissance. The New York Times noted, "It's been a long time coming, but New Jersey's largest city is finally turning a corner."

Widely expected to make Amazon HQ2’s shortlist, Newark is a destination that investors should keep an eye on in 2018 and beyond. 

5. Toronto Shows It’s a Major Player on The World Stage 

Last, but not least, is Toronto. For decades, Canada has been eyed as a little brother to the U.S. and has been on the receiving end of one too many maple syrup jokes. But those days are over.  

In 2017, the city’s economy grew by 2.7%—the highest in Canada. Thanks to a global workforce that speaks over 140 languages, affordable higher education, and world-class research institutions, Toronto is a beacon for young talent and business startups. International corporations have taken notice: Toronto made up 8% of all foreign direct investment in North America totaling about $4.5 billion in 2016 (2017 data has yet to be released). 

Perhaps that’s why the city was chosen to host the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) annual conference in September 2017. The highlight of the event was Richard Florida’s keynote speech, which discussed themes from his new book, The New Urban Crisis. Florida highlighted Toronto’s success as a model for the thousands of city leaders who made the trip—leaving the conference crowd raving about the forward-thinking metro.   

What’s Next? 

What were your favorite economic development stories from last year—and what trends should we be watching this year? Let me know in the comments below!   

April Mason has spent the last two decades developing public relations campaigns for clients in the economic development, real estate and tourism industries. Her Montclair, NJ-based agency, Violet PR, focuses on generating favorable media exposure for communities and companies reinventing urban areas, building sustainable projects and growing businesses. 

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