In late December 2019, Congress and the White House signed off on a budget that included at least one major victory for manufacturing communities across the country: the Defense Manufacturing Communities Support Program (DMCSP), authorized by the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)—which, before December, was not assured funding—was awarded $25 million in the 2020 budget.

The DMCSP was derived from a prior Department of Commerce program called the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP), which designated U.S. communities as “manufacturing communities” based on an assessment of the strength of their regional manufacturing development strategies submitted after a request for proposals (RFP). Designated communities received support in terms of a federal agency partner that helped connect them to federal grant opportunities and technical assistance, and the designation attracted private funding as well, according to anecdotal accounts from community leaders (documented by my colleague). Many leaders of those designated communities have continued to collaborate—for the past five years—across regions to form a national collaborative, now incorporated as a nonprofit organization called the American Manufacturing Communities Collaborative (AMCC).

As Matt Bogoshian, AMCC’s executive director, told The Century Foundation:

Over the decades, the evidence has shown that sustainable and inclusive economic development in American communities, led by the manufacturing sector, is attainable but depends upon bottom-up leadership and an ecosystem of support. That is why it is exciting to see how the IMCP program example, embodied in the new DMCSP, will provide American communities with more support toward helping produce more sustainable and inclusive economic development in more communities. With supportive programs like these . . . sustainable prosperity can become the norm so that every American community can thrive in the twenty-first century.

Congressional renewal of the manufacturing communities program under the DMCSP could serve to support those previously designated communities, and also expand the reach of the original designation program to include new geographies and new communities—and, ultimately, enhance regional economic development across the country. And, specific to the Department of Defense, as I have written previously, the DMCSP will bolster the clusters most directly associated with national defense, such as aerospace and shipbuilding; shore up sub-tiers of the defense supply chain; and provide a new mechanism to address high priority national security issues.

What’s Next?

The appropriated funds will be distributed to the Department of Defense’s Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA), which had played a role as one of a dozen partnering agencies that worked with the Department of Commerce to launch the IMCP program. To maximize the momentum built up from the IMCP pilot and the programs that those communities established, OEA should seek appropriate feedback from regional leaderships as it plans this program.

The authorizing language establishing the DMCSP also directed the OEA to plan this new initiative in close partnership with the Manufacturing USA institutes, which are focused on developing new, cutting-edge technologies that can, if they are broadly applied by manufacturers, be a critical part of the future of U.S. manufacturing jobs. Such collaboration can help Manufacturing USA meet enhanced mandates in the FY 2020 NDAA around workforce development, and also enable these national institutes to evolve into forces for regional economic development in the communities where they are developing technologies. For example, Catalyst Connection (which leads the Southwest Pennsylvania manufacturing community) is working with the America Makes institute to foster an additive manufacturing (including 3D printing) cluster of small businesses radiating out of America Makes’ Youngstown, Ohio headquarters into a “tech belt” from Northeastern Ohio to Southwestern Pennsylvania.

What Shouldn’t Be Left Out?

The success of the original IMCP program can be attributed to a few core components, which should be strongly considered when designing the new program:

  1. An anchor organization. Each prospective application for communities to earn the designation should be comprised of a collaboration between a number of local entities, jointly dubbed an “anchor organization,” which should include local government, business, labor, community groups, educational institutions, and workforce development practitioners. This diversity of perspectives is needed for manufacturing communities to develop a holistic view of progress for the sector and for the community at large. An anchor organization can work to address core regional development initiatives, such as building pathways to good manufacturing jobs for diverse communities. The new DMCSP should aim to give multi-year funding to these anchor organizations that continue to meet designated metrics.
  2. A strategic plan. The RFP should require the anchor organization to author a strategic plan, based on key data, that includes their core strengths and plans to address areas for improvement.
  3. Previously designated manufacturing communities. The NDAA legislation does require a competition for the federal manufacturing designation. The OEA should explore whether the previous competition for the IMCP fulfills this legal requirement, and thus expedite the start of the program for those communities that were previously designated and who clearly play a role in key parts of the defense supply chain, such as maritime, aerospace, vehicles, metals, and composites. Such a process would allow IMCP members to quickly share their extensive learnings about their strategic collaborations with a new cohort of manufacturing communities. Alternatively, the OEA could consider elements of the IMCP as fulfilling parts of a new competition. For example, IMCP designated communities could submit their prior (but updated) regional economic development plan to a new RFP.
  4. Consistency and coordination. Designations should last more than two years, so that there can be a longer process of program development, implementation, assessment, and improvement. IMCP communities have benefited immensely from peer learning and cross-community collaboration. The OEA should use some of its newly authorized funding to foster such collaboration as the network of communities grows in the years to come.
  5. Continued funding. Communities will need several years to address key gaps holding back the growth of manufacturing in their sectors. Congress can maximize their impact by delivering on multi-year funding for the program, and ensure that the appropriations grow as the network of designated communities expands.
  6. Sustainability. Climate change, a national security threat, should be included as what gets addressed by encouraging RFP respondents to demonstrate sustainable and energy efficient products and practices.