The Mayor’s Leadership Role in Economic Development 
(Originally Published by the Illinois Municipal League)

Making something happen or just let anything happen!


In the “big picture” of community economic development, a Mayor can make things happen! The Mayor is ultimately responsible for the community’s economic development strategy. The Mayor as the chief elected officer of the community must combine public and private interests to complete projects that result in better community - in other words, to implement the community’s economic development strategy.

A community economic development strategy is essentially developed in two ways, - strategically or haphazardly. Too often in small communities, Mayors, staff and other elected officials are too busy reacting to citizen problems and complaints to consider the serious importance of a formal written community economic development strategy.

This article describes how Mayors find themselves trapped into a reactionary haphazard community economic development strategy. The authors advocate that it is the responsibility of the Mayor working with other elected officials and staff to defend against these haphazard traps and provide necessary leadership to facilitate a strategically focused community economic development strategy.



The old adage “why plan, when you can react” especially applies to local government economic development. Today, most Mayors feel overwhelmed with the day-to-day government services that need to be provided with limited and decreasing revenues. Almost every Mayor has at one time or another lamented the difficulty of getting things done. In addition to working full times jobs themselves, they must now face increased citizen demand for services and uncertain revenues.

In times like this it is hard to focus community leadership towards future planning when there are so many daily problems to solve. How can long-term creative ideas for the future seriously be considered when government administration is totally involved in meeting daily service needs? The result is reaction to any (if there is any) economic development in a haphazard, uncoordinated fashion.


The “squeaky wheel fix” is another common trap. This typically occurs when citizens complain loudly. The government then takes action to correct the problem with little, if any, forethought of how it “fits” into the larger scheme of economic development for the community. The result is often disconnected projects having no relationships. They do not set the framework for future economic development projects.


If your community is a “hot growth spot”, the desperation for new tax base may not be as great as older comminutes or communities affected by recent job losses. However, in many communities any development is welcome even if might jeopardize a desired long-term position of the community. Again, the result is often development not related to any plan for the future.


Another strategy may be simply to wait until developers come forward with projects. You then react to their proposals. Like above, the result is often development not related to any plan for the future


To avoid the above traps, you want to influence the long-term economic future of your community. The Mayor must be pro active and facilitate the preparation of a community economic development strategy. This strategy will illustrate the long range vision of the community and identify specific projects necessary to achieve this vision. The Mayor must initiate the community economic development strategy planning process.

An exercise must be completed that identifies specific projects that are necessary to the economic goals of the community. The community must prioritize the projects and determine their cost. The community then builds the priority projects that are financially prudent.

The community does this over a number of years. The priority may be modified because the community faces a major change, but for the most part the community continues its long term vision and funds the next priority and not today’s hot topic. The overall community economic development strategy must be built on the consensus of elected officials, private business interests and the majority of citizens. Mayoral leadership fosters a process that develops a community-wide consensus about projects resulting in implementation of an economic vision.



Our experience is that residents and business owners within any community have many ideas about economic and community development improvements needed for the community. The Mayor and community leadership need to hear these ideas at the very beginning of the process. There are a number of ways to solicit these ideas. The most popular process is to hold a community meeting, send out a mail return questionnaire, and/or solicit ideas through a survey undertaken by a professional firm or listed on your web page.

The community meetings works only when it is properly directed. Our experience is that it is beneficial have a disinterested third party facilitator experienced in community goal setting techniques conduct the meeting.

Another technique is to have a community open house with a number of concepts aired for citizens to see and react to at specific stations. Based on this input the Mayor leads the other elected officials in forming a vision for the overall future for the community. The community then communicates this vision both graphically and in writing. An implementation strategy accompanies this vision which contains creative proposals to improve the community and the process to implement the proposals. 


The community economic development strategy will include a listing of projects that could enhance the community. We are always faced with the question of how to develop specific projects? Projects that the community must implement are sometimes not the priority of the community, but some regulating body. For instance, improvements may be required by the State before communities can address extensions and enlargements of the municipal water and sewer system.

Others are identified by staff, consultants, business leaders, citizens, other elected officials or bodies and developers that would like to invest in the community. You can simply sit down with these individuals and identify needed and required projects. Similar processes are needed here as with the development of the overall strategy.

Ultimately the Mayor and elected officials must develop priorities. They must then work with staff to make the plan feasible. They then develop an implementation schedule of the community economic development plan. The Mayor will serve as the facilitator for its implementation. The Mayor will meet and interact with or direct staff to undertake this role with developers, grant agencies, development approval bodies, other elected officials and the citizens of the community.


Mayors can make things happen. A Mayor can lead the community economic development strategy that will seek to implement specific actions and projects or react to initiatives brought about by others. It takes vision, leadership, and courage to step out front and lead community economic development. History has proven that Mayoral leadership, energizing the political and economic leadership of a community, has success in achieving the community’s desired economic development vision

About the Authors

Chuck Eckenstahler earned his CED certification in 1984 and is now semi retired. He is a 35 year veteran real estate and municipal planning and economic development consultant who helped originate and taught economic development subjects in the Certificate in Economic Development Program offered by the Graduate School of Business at Purdue North Central, Westville, Indiana and serves on the faculty of the Lowell Stahl Center for Commercial Real Estate Studies at Lewis University, Oakbrook Illinois. He can be contacted at or by phone at 219-861-2077.  More info at:

Craig Hullinger AICP has 35 years of experience in economic development, city planning, and transportation planning. He is a Partner in the consulting firm of Ruyle Hullinger and Associates. He was formerly the Economic Development Director of Peoria, the Director of Land Use for Will County, and the Village Manager of Olympia Fields, Minooka, and University Park. He is member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a Vietnam Veteran, and is a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve.  He can be contacted at or by phone at 309 634 5557. More info at: