5 Best Practices for Economic Developers
There are some proven approaches that can go a long way toward maximizing the odds of success.
Economic development is fiercely competitive, and there are myriad opinions about the best strategies to successfully attract business and industry to a region. Some fall on the sword of incentives, while others place their faith in the lure of an abundant natural resource. The reality, though, is that there is no silver bullet when it comes to consistently securing corporate investment, and there are many ways to stumble. Many economic-development organizations get distracted by local politics, are hamstrung by lack of resources or do not receive adequate training to fulfill their missions.
Throughout my career in economic development and site selection, I have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of these efforts. And while no two regions are alike, I've come to realize that there are some common best practices that can significantly improve the odds that your region will land the big fish when it nibbles:
1. Align key stakeholders around a common vision: Companies canvassing locations for a new manufacturing plant expect an inviting attitude. It begins with the state and local economic-development teams, but if it isn't carried forward with representatives from affected jurisdictions, business groups, local utilities, workforce organizations, educational institutions and others, you stand to be eliminated from consideration. Educating local stakeholders on the purpose and value of your organization is a critical role of the economic developer. Their buy-in of your mission is the fuel that makes the economic-development engine run.
2. Know and develop your available sites and buildings: One of the first things site selectors will request is a list of available sites or buildings. More than a list of addresses, your spreadsheet should contain all parcels and existing facilities, each characterized by size, zoning restrictions, proximity to relevant infrastructure and utilities, the sites' advantages and shortcomings, and mitigation plans to address issues. For example, if gas service is not available at a site, the spreadsheet should explain what is needed to secure it along with an estimated cost and timeline. If funding allows, communities should proceed to develop available sites to an extent that it lessens start-up time for potential industrial users.
3. Assume the role of gatekeeper: Whether an inquiry comes directly from a site selector or from a state agency, the local economic developer should serve as the gatekeeper for the proposal, gathering all the necessary information and compiling it into a response that is complete and accurate. With the gatekeeper's guidance, everyone has their assignment, there is no duplication of effort, and if the first two tips above are followed most of the information should already be available.
4. Implement a business retention program: Existing businesses are usually your greatest resource for attracting new jobs and investment and your best ally when it comes to advocating for your community. A strong business retention program can nurture this. An effective program might include hosting roundtable discussions and one-on-one meetings for key employers and municipal leaders, as well as providing regular networking events to encourage community-wide engagement. A business retention program can also serve to groom the local business community for employer interviews, which help site selectors understand how companies deal with local and state laws or restrictions, infrastructure and labor issues, and costs of business. If a particular business doesn't allow site visits due to privacy policies or other concerns, providing even limited access to site selectors is perfectly acceptable.
5. Benchmark: Envious of a particular region that doesn't compete with yours but always seems to land big projects? Visit them to learn how they do it. Ask questions regarding their vision and goals; how their economic development team is structured; how they manage the flow of information during the site-selection process; how their business retention program works and who participates; and what trends they are seeing. You should also ask similar questions of the site-selection consultants you visit with so you can compare their answers to those of the local economic-development team and government leaders.
Conducted with passion and a sense of communal camaraderie, the business of attracting business can reap tremendous rewards for your region. Following these best practices will go a long way toward ensuring that you land a prize catch with each cast.