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cities in both nations. Using the best of methodological options, this article challenges a number of accepted truths:

  • Economic development policy making is largely about economics and politics,

  • local government structure matters in determining policy processes and resultant policies,

  • fiscal and economic stress force cities to approve costly incentives for private businesses,

  • the composition of local governing regimes largely determines policies,

  • cities with similar governing regimes will have similar approaches to economic development,

  • businesses are a critical part of most local economic development regimes,

  • businesses will always push for incentives to lower their costs of production,

  • local economic development policies and processes will vary depending on the extent of business and/or citizen input into the decision-making process, and

  • cities employing a broad array of economic development techniques or most incentives al- lowed by state law are “shooting at everything that flies” and lack rational focus in their eco- nomic development efforts.


To evaluate the quality of what is known about local economic development, it is useful to con- sider epistemology: How did we come to know what we know? What methodologies are tradition- ally used to study local economic development? and Are there any limitations inherent in those methods that might raise questions about the findings? Obviously, these are rhetorical questions. How scholars have studied local economic development reflects a classic “good news, bad news” story. Much research has been based on case study analyses, examining individual large central cit- ies or comparing a small number of cities. Such methodology has provided detailed but possibly idiosyncratic pictures of local development politics, processes, and policies. Other research has relied on large cross-sectional surveys providing uniform data across many cities that tend to be static and shallow in explanatory power.1

The pros and cons of cross-sectional survey methodologies as opposed to case studies are well known. The great advantage of surveys is that they provide uniform and/or comparable data on a wide array of variables for a large number of cases. Because much of the research on local eco- nomic development to date has been based on single or limited case studies, findings regarding the development techniques employed and the forces behind policy choices have often been conflict- ing. This stems from variation in individual places and the inability to compare across a large num- ber of cases. Surveys overcome these limits and allow for more sophisticated statistical analyses, including regression and path analysis. As a whole, such studies have provided a more inclusive picture of what cities across the United States and, in some cases, other nations are doing as far as economic development.

However, there are some significant limitations to the survey approach. These include variation in the measurement of both independent and dependent variables; lack of explanatory depth and the overgeneralizations required for large surveys; low response rates; sampling error and bias; inability to probe, question, or verify responses; misinterpretation of survey questions; incorrect data; and, perhaps most damning, the typically low explanatory power of analyses based on survey research. Obviously, the major trade-off between survey and case study research relates to the depth of information obtained. Although large-scale surveys produce a great deal of uniform infor- mation, they are inherently limited to measuring surface effects. Questions have to be simple and clear enough to be uniformly understood. Clarification and probing are impossible. Unless surveys are sent to a number of different types of respondents in a city (mayors, managers, council mem- bers, department heads), they reflect only the views of the particular respondent. Even then, it is often impossible to be sure exactly who is answering the questionnaire. Self-administered surveys do not elicit the kind of rich, detailed information that can be obtained in case studies; it is decep- tively easy to construct a bad survey and extremely difficult to create a good one.

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