5 Questions to Shape Your Build Back Better Regional Challenge Application: Seize a Generational Investment in Equitable Economic Development

Written by Bret Collazzi, Kate Collignon, and Eric Rothman
Last month, the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) launched one of the largest and most ambitious efforts in its history. With support from a $3 billion allocation in the American Rescue Plan, EDA created six new grant programs that drive regional job growth, workforce development, tourism recovery, and more.
The largest of those programs and the first to accept applications is the Build Back Better Regional Challenge, designed to strengthen regional industry clusters and create high-wage jobs in sectors that are resilient to future economic shocks and that reinforce America’s global competitiveness , from cleantech and artificial intelligence to life sciences and ag tech. EDA will award up to 30 regions nationwide as much as $75 million each to invest in projects that accelerate growth in these industries – anything from traditional infrastructure and planning studies to entrepreneurship and workforce programs. The first of two applications is due October 19. (For more details on the program, see our recent guide, developed with the national nonprofit America Achieves.)
Crucially, Build Back Better prioritizes equitable growth. The EDA will favor proposals where job and business opportunities benefit historically excluded groups, including women, people of color, and low-wage workers, as well as distressed geographies, with a $100 million set-aside for coal communities. Ensuring that investment creates broad-based economic opportunity will require a careful pairing of traditional infrastructure and real estate development with targeted workforce development strategies, startup support programs, and investment in backbone infrastructure such as affordable broadband. Successful strategies will require strong partnerships among government, industry, academia, and community organizations.
Build Back Better will be highly competitive. Based on our experience guiding cities, counties, and regional partnerships on transformative investments such as HUD’s Strong Cities Strong Communities and Amazon HQ2, as well as with federal grant programs such as TIGER and Choice Neighborhoods, regions seeking to stand out should consider five fundamental questions:

  1. What industry sector(s) represent your region’s most promising opportunity to grow high-wage jobs and broad-based economic opportunity? Some regions have placed a big bet on one growth sector; others will need to choose among several. Regions should consider from the start both which sector(s) have the potential to generate the greatest number of high-wage jobs and the potential for these sectors – based on their job profiles, existing employers, and relationships between industry and educators – to provide opportunity broadly across the region and particularly among historically excluded groups.

  3. What assets give your region a unique competitive advantage for your target sector(s), and what are your limitations? Regional differentiators will vary by industry and region – for some, it’s a hard asset like a port or smart grid; for others, it’s a knowledge base that drives R&D or a quality of life that attracts and retains talent. Regions must be able to tell a story about the strength of these assets relative to other regions’ and about recent progress in strengthening them, whether measured in terms of job growth, wage growth, or private investment. Regions must also articulate the risks to future competitiveness, whether local talent base, business environment, or insufficiency of infrastructure. This discussion becomes the rationale for investment.

  5. What are your region’s threats to equitable growth and opportunities to address them? Regions must also assess shortcomings in their existing and prospective clusters: What are existing job and wage disparities in target sector(s)? Are new high-wage jobs and business opportunities accessible to women, workers of color, and other underrepresented groups? Are there fundamental investments needed to enable broad job access, such affordable broadband, digital literacy, and transit access to job centers? Build Back Better provides a rare opportunity to connect capital, planning, and programmatic investments – how could applications seek to simultaneously grow total jobs, improve access to jobs for workers of all backgrounds, and address the gaps in access that underpin existing wage and work disparities?

  7. What promising project models could Build Back Better jumpstart or scale up? In the end, Build Back Better is designed to fund up to eight projects in each region, and because all funds must be spent within five years, applications will be strongest where projects are already at least half-cooked. For programmatic projects such as those focused on workforce and entrepreneurship, regions should assess programs already in place locally that have shown success and could be scaled up with additional funding, as well as successful national models that could be adapted locally. For physical projects, while details such as siting and approvals will be locally specific, regions may be able to import funding frameworks, partnership models, and other strategies from national and global precedents.

  9. What entity is best positioned to apply for Build Back Better and trusted to lead an inclusive coalition around a shared vision for growth? Build Back Better applications require a lead entity to coordinate approved projects. Just as importantly, regions need a trusted convener to build a coalition among government, industry, academic, and community partners. Who has demonstrated a commitment to equity and inclusion in the past? Who has the capacity to keep partners informed and the expertise to help shape mutually beneficial partnerships? The lead applicant and the convenor need not be the same entity but should trust and respect each other.

The $1 billion allocated through Build Back Better, combined with $2 billion in other EDA funds, will provide a historic down payment on equitable economic development in regions across the United States. High-profile grant competitions such as these provide a rare occasion to convene regional leaders across sectors to align around a vision and priorities that can have lasting impact – regardless of success in the competition. HR&A is excited to shape new paths toward growth that are both equitable and enduring for our clients who pursue Build Back Better and future funding opportunities.
For more information about the Build Back Better program or to discuss your application, please contact us at buildback@hraadvisors.com.