Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Best Practices in Economic Development

By Ranada Robinson, Senior Research Associate. 

This morning, I participated in a webinar hosted by Atlas Advertising entitled 7 Keys to High Performance Economic Development in 2013. Featured in this webinar were three panelists representing top performers in the Economic Development Organization world, two of which are our clients: Janet Miller, Chief Economic Development Officer of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerceand Sara Dunnigan, Senior VP of Existing Business Services and Talent Development of the Greater Richmond Partnership, who were joined by Clint Kolby, Project Manager for the Brenham Economic Development Foundation.

To set the tone of the webinar, the participants were asked to take a poll about whether they feel their economic development organization makes a difference. While 61 percent said they do think their organization does make a difference, what captivated me was the 35 percent that said that their organization does have an impact, but they can’t measure it. As a researcher, this was striking because here at Market Street, we are constantly advising clients to benchmark themselves and track their progress—that effective implementation requires metrics. I was pleased to see that all three panelists encouraged the webinar participants to measure, measure, measure.

It’s always important for economic developers to remember how much every action they take impacts final results, more evidence of how important it is to quantify economic development efforts. Before the panelists spoke, the latest figures from Atlas Consulting’s High Performance Economic Development survey were presented: 
  • Fifty percent of economic development organizations felt they had an impact
  • $244 million was invested per community in the last 12 months
  • 1,768 jobs were created per organization in the last 12 months
  • A single conversation with a prospect resulted in an average of 25 jobs
Each panelist then shared their challenges, goals, tactics, results, and lessons as they work to bring jobs and capital investment to their communities. Here are some highlights from each of these communities.

Nashville, TN

As we know because of our extensive work in Nashville, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce does a phenomenal job tracking various metrics such as job growth, population growth, increase in per capita income, increase in gross domestic product, percent of site visits resulting from RFPs, etc. The Chamber has been recognized in several publications, including being ranked #1 for job growth by Atlas Advertising, #1 “Future Job Creating Machines” by Kiplinger, and is one of the Top Ten Economic Development Groups in America by Site Selection Magazine. Janet Miller had great advice for the participants:
  • Get your tools in order before marketing. The best use of marketing dollars for limited budgets is to invest in outside expertise on website creation.
  • Make sure your marketing is consistent over a period of years for target audiences.
  • Play to your strengths, rather than your weaknesses—Nashville has historical success in health care and healthcare IT, so that’s what they’ve focused energy on—not biotech, which has not had a solid foundation in the community.
  • However, don’t ignore your weaknesses—acknowledging your issues is the first step to tackling them.
If politics is hurting a community’s image, and possibly business structures, the ED organization must get involved in advocacy and policy work at the state and local levels.

Richmond, VA

Richmond’s challenges have included fostering cooperation between four strong localities with their own strong economic development programs; integrating public and private sector investors; keeping economic development as a top priority despite having a stable, diverse economy which is a blessing but also a curse because they have had difficulty forming a solid “identity;” and a slow growth economy surrounded by very competitive neighbors. One of the things we at Market Street love to boast about the Greater Richmond Partnership is their focus on talent. They have a done an amazing job attracting, retaining, and developing talent through programs such as their talent portal and their virtual relocation tool

Sara Dunnigan urged participants to have a strategic plan in place, which sends a clear message to investors and the community and also helps staff get on the same page. She recommended internal and external scorecards—the Greater Richmond Partnership measures many outcomes and actions, but not all are included in their annual report or their five-year scorecard. She also emphasized the importance of having job creation and investment goals, not just overall, but also by program of work.

Brenham, TX

Brenham, Texas has a population of 16,000 people and considers itself a rural community—a challenge because the community is in the backyards of both Austin and Houston. It is seen as a tourism destination, they have a small pool of skilled labor, and they do not have an adequate supply of commercial buildings. However, that has not stopped this community from being recognized as the top micropolitan area in Texas by Site Selection Magazine for two years in a row. With its limited budget, the Brenham Economic Development Foundation launched a direct email marketing campaign, which features employment statistics and recent news—an inexpensive way to keep stakeholders and potential investors in the know. They also host site visits, “windshield tours”, and familiarization tours for site selectors and commercial real estate brokers along with surveying local employers as a part of their Business Retention and Expansion program, which Clint Kolby calls “the meat and potatoes of rural economic development.” 

Another impactful program that the Foundation has implemented is an industry tour and training program, which targets and tracks students who are not planning to attend a four-year college but will likely go directly into the workforce. Believing that workforce development is “a major ingredient to success,” the Foundation takes them on tours of facilities of local employers and makes connections to support a skilled talent pipeline. Kolby suggested that communities should embrace regionalism and to do what you can to make yourself known. 

This webinar underscored the importance of how Market Street approaches most projects. Major steps to success include benchmarking your community – getting a baseline of where you are and how you compare to similar or aspirational communities; setting goals and gaining buy-in from leadership and stakeholders; generating the awareness and driving the conversations that result in new jobs and investment; and implementing the “basics”– making sure you have the tools you need, including an effective and easy to manage website, a customer relationship management system, email marketing system, proposal templates, etc. Economic development requires careful planning and effective implementation!