Vacant land inventory: Are basic tools being overlooked?

How much vacant industrial or employment land does your municipality have? Simple question, but it’s surprising how difficult it can be to answer. It’s not as though it’s an uncommon question. Investors and existing businesses might ask you, as they look at whether or not they can find space for new construction, expansion, or relocation. Communities themselves may ask it as they start to look at whether they have the resources to accommodate the growth they want. There always seems to be an anecdotal answer. Something like: ‘Well, there’s about 200 acres, mostly in the South end…’

But ask yourself – can the question really be answered for your community? Is there broad understanding of what the vacant opportunities are, where the underutilized areas are, what the rates are, and how much of it is available/marketable/serviced? What if keeping a business in the community depended on it? Further, how can a community plan for employment growth without having an idea of how much land is available to accommodate that anticipated growth?

These are all questions that we should have answers to. To get there though, starts with a more comprehensive inventory of vacant land in the community. I know – flashy, right? Poring over maps, analyzing building permit data, driving around to carefully examine employment areas…but it’s this first step that lays the foundation for much more. Often though, I wonder if it’s being overlooked in the pursuit of higher profile activities.

Definitions of developed, vacant, and underutilized land, as well as its ability to meet market trends and requirements, often vary widely among stakeholders concerned with land development. Yes, there’s 100 vacant acres left, but is that two 50 acre parcels? Five 20 acre parcels? 100 one acre parcels? Can any vacant lands be assembled? Is the owner marketing them? How flexible is the zoning? Do they have characteristics that make them unusable or less marketable? Are there opportunities for infill development on underutilized lands?

This underlies the critical fact that the exercise should be a collaborative one; with efforts and insight coming from economic development, planning, and the development community. The insight of the economic development agency and development community on factors like market conditions plays a key role in establishing the inventory, especially when determining vacancy and usability – one person’s underutilized lot may be another’s storage yard. Planners offer the insight needed to balance the exercise with knowledge of likely levels of growth, interests from competing land uses, and objectives for infrastructure investment and municipal fiscal sustainability.

There are a few high profile tools available to showcase vacant land inventories and opportunities. Ronnie Sanders talked about GIS applications in economic development earlier this year, and the push to develop new and innovative approaches to using GIS in cities, regions, and states/provinces across North America to aid economic development. Many of these tools are not only functional, but they have contributed widely to the belief that these areas are “shovel-ready”. Tools like Google Map Maker mean that even communities without corporate GIS departments can begin to spatially-represent their vacant lands to external and internal investors.

However, we shouldn’t forget the first step in many of these approaches. It’s not the trendiest of economic development tools or initiatives (see marketing initiatives, trade missions, new websites), nor does it result in new jobs, new tax revenues, or media accolades. Quite the contrary – it’s probably one of the more traditional tools of economic development. However, without this basic type of information available and a sense of the amount of growth it can sustainably accommodate, can we really assume that a community is ready to take on the trendier, more innovative stuff?