In 1982, the AT&T phone monopoly was broken up, the first compact disc player sold in Japan, and the Victoria Economic Development Corp. formed.

Almost 40 years later, phones and music aren’t the only things that have changed dramatically. Economic development is no longer only about primary jobs, as has been the mantra of Victoria’s local government and its economic development corporation for four decades.

Rather, many cities have discovered their prosperity springs from the quality of the place and not just the utility of the location, as national expert Ed McMahon told the Victoria Chamber of Commerce shortly before the pandemic seized a stranglehold on the world economy. McMahon, the chairman of sustainable development and environmental policy at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., gave a presentation titled “Place-Making & Economic Development” in early March.

His words came to mind as the Victoria City Council wrestled at its last meeting with defining economic development. The meeting showed significant progress as five council members voted to invest in small businesses struggling to rebound from the pandemic. The council voted to partner with PeopleFund, a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution, to provide an estimated $750,000 or more in loans to small businesses that have been hit during the pandemic.

At the start of the meeting, businessman Dennis Patillo encouraged the city to frame its support of economic development more broadly than only job creation. In the COVID-19 environment, business preservation emerges as critical. It’s about what Victoria needs to preserve so it can continue to shape its future.

Patillo could be the poster child for McMahon’s definition of how cities succeed. Where most people saw only a crumbling water pumping station needing to be torn down, Patillo and his wife, Louise, saw a historic structure ready to be given new life in a prime location along the Guadalupe River in Riverside Park.

During the past decade, The PumpHouse Riverside Restaurant & Bar became one of the city’s signature venues, a place at the top of the list for out-of-town visitors. It is one of those places where residents like to show off Victoria to visitors.

To put it another way, the PumpHouse makes Victoria a destination community.

When people recommend a city, they never talk about its J.C. Penney department store or its McDonald’s restaurants. That’s not to disparage national chains, but to emphasize the importance of Melvin’s Menswear, Fossati’s Delicatessen and many more. Locally owned businesses create a sense of character and community.

Elected last year on a platform of economic development, Mayor Rawley McCoy clearly stated this vision during the last council meeting. To succeed in the 21st century, Victoria must invest in itself.

Victoria voters did just this in 1996 when two-thirds imposed a half-cent sales tax devoted to economic development. This is the money the council plans to use a small piece of for the PeopleFund loan program.

The community’s past investments in itself have paid off in many ways, including the Victoria Fine Arts Center, the arrival of the Caterpillar manufacturing plant in the Lone Tree Business Park and, most importantly, the expansion of the University of Houston-Victoria. UHV’s continued growth is critical to Victoria’s economic development.

That is why UHV President Robert Glenn brought in McMahon, the planning expert, to talk about Victoria’s future. UHV’s stated goal is to bring 6,000 students to the Victoria campus by 2025. If achieved, this would transform the community.

McMahon emphasized public-private partnerships that focus on the best a community has to offer. In the same spirit, it is entirely appropriate for local government to try to partner with a nonprofit created to fill the gaps in commercial banking.

These are loans, not handouts. This is a mainstream Republican approach supported by conservative Victoria business people.

Exasperated by two or three council members’ opposition to supporting small business and their preference for doing nothing, council member Mark Loffgren asked them for clarity about what economic development means. Loffgren managed both H-E-B stores in Victoria before retiring and being elected to council last year.

His long, successful career in business makes it obvious to him the council needs to do all it can for small business.

If not, he asked, “What’s your vision for economic development in Victoria?”

No answer came during the meeting, but at least those pushing progress won this round. They need to push even harder in the challenging years ahead for Victoria to prosper.

Another 1980s memory comes to mind: the business principle of continuous improvement, popularized during that decade. The previous council, with a few holdovers still seated, lost sight of this fundamental business practice: If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. There is no standing still.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate’s editorial board.

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