52 Weeks of Economic Developers: Marty Vanags

*This feature was first published by IEDC on June 6, 2016. IEDC has named 2016 the Year of the Economic Developer, in light of the organization’s 90th anniversary serving the profession. To mark the occasion, they are running a series that profiles and celebrates economic developers across the country, titled “52 Weeks of Economic Developers.”

IEDC 52 Weeks of Economic Developers Marty VanagsHow did you get into economic development?

I started my career in city management; as a political science major, this seemed like a good career path. I was working for a small community in Northern Illinois as the city administrator and director of economic and community development, the latter of which I knew nothing about at the time. The head of the regional EDO recognized my interest and efforts to promote the community and recruited me to work full time in economic development at the regional level. Even since then, I have worked in some form of economic development.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

I have received a lot of advice – it seems everyone thinks I need it! But the best advice came from the former mayor of my hometown, who told me early in my career that as an EDO executive I have “no statutory or legal power to do anything. But if you do your job well and do it for the right reasons and be excellent at it, you will find you have the power to convene. And when you have that, economic development will come easy.” In other words, my leadership could propel economic development for the community if I approached it earnestly and with an eye toward excellence.

What do you see as the most pressing issue in the profession today?

While we have done a good job building our profession and developing a rigorous certification process, this is sometimes lost on those who hire us: local boards and governments. I see a disturbing trend of hiring the politically connected person rather than a professional economic developer with years of experience and certification.

Could you recall a particularly memorable, challenging, or humorous moment in your career?

Early in my career, I was tasked with acquiring residential properties on behalf of my community for a tax-increment-induced redevelopment project. It was hard to tell long-time residents of an area that was poorly planned and had lost value that the village board had decided to purchase their homes and was prepared to use eminent domain, if necessary. My first acquisition was the home of an older couple. Being new at this, I was worried they would be angry and difficult to work with. But we very quickly came to an agreement that allowed them to purchase their “dream home.” Later, they told me if it weren’t for the redevelopment project they would have been stuck in that “shack.” Others soon followed, and the project turned into everything the community hoped for. I was glad for that outcome but most pleased to see I was able to help someone get to a better place in life. This was a challenging event for me that I expected to go poorly and resulted in an outcome that was more than wonderful.

In what direction do you hope to see the profession go?

I feel our profession is often catching up – catching up to technology, economic trends, and the inertia of world events. What if we could tell the future? What if we could provide greater observation and prediction as to what future economic, cultural, and demographic trends lie ahead. Having a greater sense of futurism, trend observation, and projection should be incorporated into our profession from an early developmental stage. This would allow us to proactively manage the economic future of our communities, and we would spend less time reacting to events around us. The world would need to catch up with the local economic developer, rather than the other way around.