Thursday, August 18, 2011

It's not actually 100 degrees everywhere... Highlights from the SEDC conference in Asheville, NC

By Kathy Young, Director of Operations.

This week I attended the Southern Economic Development Council's annual conference in lovely - and not sweltering -  Asheville, North Carolina. The historic Grove Park Inn was the perfect setting for the many opportunities to catch up with clients and old friends, and to make new friends (and sometimes be so engaged by the speakers that the ever present Blackberry was neglected and shunned). Some of our more recent clients in attendance included the Tulsa Chamber, the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber, Upstate Alliance, New Carolina, and the Jones County (MS) Economic Development Authority.

During the conference, alongside approximately 400 economic developers, I sat in on a variety of sessions and panels, many of which featured excellent speakers who brought forth new information or framed some of today's economic and demographic trends in new ways. 

One conference highlight included seeing one of our clients, Becca Hardin, Vice President of Economic Development at the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce speak to the bi-state regional efforts she and her team lead. Of the many relevant insights Becca shared about recent experiences, one in particular stood out. In the wake of job losses resulting from Cessna closing its Columbus facility during the height of the recession, the Chamber worked with a laser focus on retaining the 65 jobs at McCauley Propeller Systems, a division of Cessna. Since that success, which Hardin observed was a critical morale boost for the community as much as an economic win, McCauley has announced an additional expansion. Another great example of the importance of retaining and growing existing businesses, and how critical it is to have an established relationship before a crisis ever arises.

Additionally, two of the more illuminating sessions were moderated by Ted Abernathy, Executive Director of the Southern Growth Policies Board; the first session provided a national perspective and the second one featured three panelists that spoke to regional issues and dynamics.

A few takeaways from those two panels... In response to two questions about being a hypothetical "innovation czar" and offering advice for the federal government to help with long term job creation, panelists had this to say:

  • Focus on driving foreign direct investment as much we support export activities. William Bates, Chief of Staff for the Council on Competitiveness
  • Map your resources and assets as a regional community, with a specific focus on federal government financial support and resources used - "coordinate the knowledge." Gardner A. Carrick, Director of Strategic Initiatives, Manufacturing Institute
  • Staple a green card to every STEM student that we're spending U.S. education and training resources on to keep them here instead of sending them back to their home countries to start businesses. Stephen Fleming, Vice President, Georgia Tech's Enterprise Innovation Institute
Advice for the federal government:
  • Make a bigger deal about science fair winners than professional athletes. Invite students to the White House to celebrate and take it on the road - show kids throughout the country that's where the jobs are. (Bates)
  • Waive all taxes and regulations for the first year of a start-up company's life. (Carrick)
  • Or, double thresholds for regulations and requirements for start-ups, to give new companies easier freedom to grow. (Fleming)
Another pleasantly surprising highlight came during a session that featured John Hernandez, Assistant Secretary for Economic Development with the U.S. Department of Commerce and Jane Oates, Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training with the U.S. Department of Labor. The session was a true dialogue, and when gently chastised by an audience member about the burden of applications and reporting requirements, Oates pledged to use the conference to connect the regional DOL representative with grant recipients to begin the process of identifying potential changes to the system, to the point that we all knew who her colleague was, where she was sitting, and that she would start taking suggestions immediately following the session. Oates ended by saying "We believe that if we say we're going to work on it, then we should actually work on it!" On my to-do list...see if that follow-up truly happened...let's hope so!