Thursday, January 17, 2013

Project Photon: A Very Brief Case Study

By Christa Tinsley Spaht, Project Manager.

As the Market Street team was wrapping up a project with the Greater Omaha Chamber in October of last year, the Chamber’s economic development arm—the Greater Omaha Economic Development Partnership—announced the location of a $200 million Fidelity Investments data center in Papillion, south of the City of Omaha. Code named “Project Photon” in internal and public discussions, a broad team of players moved this project along for 18 months before the big announcement in October. 

Last month the Omaha World-Herald ran a story outlining the process to secure “Project Photon” that goes beyond the typical 10,000-foot-view press release listing specs and thanks. Many communities have not mastered the balanced art of seamless regional and state collaboration, aggressive and indefatigable recruiting, local target sector champions, and a detail-oriented eye for the little touches that can make a site selector or executive swoon—or at least keep them from experiencing nausea!

Here are just a few takeaways from the Project Photon process, from the perspective of the Partnership:
  • Meetings with Fidelity representatives and site location executives were held at Gallup headquarters in downtown Omaha along the Missouri River, a location that showcases the metro’s corporate, natural, recreational, entertainment, and development strengths. Fidelity reps also requested that each meeting over the course of the courtship begin with a screening of the Chamber’s “This is Omaha” video.

  • The Partnership was able to offer three sites across its four-county region for consideration. The prospects first visited the sites on their own, without metro cheerleaders guiding the tour. The prospects also had private meetings with other data center operations in the region to get the real scoop on what it’s like to run that type of operation in Greater Omaha. 

  • A nowhere-near-complete list of some of the partners involved in securing the win were the Chamber and Partnership, City of Papillion, Sarpy County, utility companies, Governor Dave Heineman’s office, a state senator, the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, the Nebraska Department of Revenue and the state tax commissioner, and even the Nebraska Humane Society. At times multiple partners had to work in sync and very, very quickly to execute major decisions like rezoning, legislation, utility rate structures, incentives packages, and removing a deer carcass from a potential site for the data center before the prospects visited (that would be where the Humane Society stepped in).
Fidelity objectively assessed Greater Omaha as a potential location among many others for their new operation, but at the same time they wanted to be wooed—not just by incentives and prepared sites, but by the idea of the region as a high-quality, attractive community in which to live and invest. The significance of good relationships with the governor and a regional approach is also clear from the Partnership’s tactics and the corporate decision makers’ preferences.

While of course the article doesn’t delve into the day-to-day ins and outs of a deal that took a year and a half for the Partnership to close or point out what Greater Omaha’s short-listed competitor regions pulled together, there are some valuable lessons learned in the hard work of the Partnership.