Dean Barber

Sort That Database and Everything Will Be Gravy

In Site Selection on March 22, 2015 at 9:09 am

The Ides of March have come and gone, and I have come to praise economic developers and not to bury them.

For I once was one, and I like to think that I understand the pressures and the challenges that they face.

Still, I must tell you that economic developers will sometimes do the darndest things that leave me scratching my head and wondering, “what were they thinking?”

And sometimes, I have concluded, well, maybe they just weren’t.

And I understand that, too. Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit, which is a helluva admission coming from a consultant. Or from anyone for that matter.

But I do not write this blog to impress. I write it to merely inform, and maybe, just maybe that will happen on occasion. Maybe it will happen with this blog entry.

The Invitation

So I received this email. I am not going to identify the economic development organization, because my purpose here is not to embarrass. For all I know, this ED group might be representing an exceptional community to live and work. Actually, I suspect it is so.

The original email asked that I “nominate excellence” and then vote on and attend “the second annual business awards” event for a small rural county in the Midwest.

Now I have never set foot in this community, and the truth is there is little reason for me to go there unless it is at the bequest of a client for business purposes. That client could be a company that has hired me for locational analysis or the ED organization itself needing help.

My point is that as I am not a resident of the community and certainly not equipped to nominate or vote on any business to win an award there, I should not have received the email. Rather, it should have been directed to an internal audience, knowledgeable stakeholders within the community.

What’s more, I am not going to travel 1,000 miles to attend a two-hour localbusiness awards ceremony. Ain’t gonna happen.

But I Responded

Now I could have let it go. I probably should have let it go, but I get so many of these same kind of emails, that I thought maybe I could turn this into a teaching moment. So I replied grumpily to the ED staffer who sent it to me:

“Just curious. Why would I have received this email? Isn’t this for internal stakeholders?”

Rhonda’s response (and that’s not her real name) was revealing in that she didn’t quite understand what I was trying to communicate. And that was partly my fault.

“You must have connected with our executive director at some point and we added you to our news/distribution list. I have removed your email from our list so that you will no longer receive news and updates from our organization.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s not what I am asking. So I replied back to Rhonda:

“I like receiving news and updates from a community when it is relevant to me in my role as a site selection consultant. I like to know of project announcements. Please understand that I am not asking to be removed from all your mailings.

“What I am suggesting and what I do not think is too particularly hard to do is to differentiate communication between internal and external stakeholders. If you do that, you will not be irritating site selection consultants like me. Thanks. – Dean”

Hooray, They Got It!

The next email took me by surprise, as it was from Rhonda’s boss, the executive director of the ED organization. The way I see it, “Jim” must be a pretty good boss, for Rhonda to share our email exchange with him. His email to me:

“Hi Dean, Jim Williams (again not his real name) here, executive director. Thank you for your constructive feedback. Thanks also to you, we have now started a “site selection consultant” list which we will target for when we have project announcements. Though I don’t always have a chance to read them, I enjoy receiving your LinkedIn blog posts. My Best, Jim.”

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Jim and Rhonda talked this out and it clicked. It took a little nudge from me, but they got it.

Now I am happy for them and for me. They no longer send me pointless information that I cannot use, but they do continue to stay in touch, which is what I want.

Dean’s Last Resort

Occasionally, very occasionally, I have had to unsubscribe from emails received from ED groups. That is a last resort measure that I hate doing but I felt that my hand was forced.

It happened with an economic development organization in California and another one in Florida. In short, they kept sending me inappropriate emails that would have been appropriate to people living in their communities.

I pointed this out, but to no avail. Nothing changed. I kept getting junk, typically invitations to breakfast and lunch events. Sadly, I had to cast them adrift.

Last month, a major regional ED group sent me an email with the subject matter: “Reserve your table for the 2015 xxxxx Awards Luncheon!”

My reply: “Thank you for the invitation, but I usually do not attend luncheons that are 2,000 miles away from me.”

I Like Newts

Maybe I should try a kinder and gentler approach and explain my reasoning.

“Please forgive me as I will be unable to attend the upcoming breakfast meeting in Moosedrool featuring State Sen. Bob Long. I understand that Mr. Long will be speaking on proposed legislation regarding protection of the three-toed newt.

“Please know that I like newts very much, but I could not find a reasonably priced airline ticket on such short notice. A transcript of his remarks would surely be appreciated.”

This past week, I got an email from another economic development organization, to “participate in xxxxxxx University’s Strategic Planning Survey.” The questions were obviously targeted to those living in the community and not to a consultant in faraway Plano, Texas.

How Hard Is It?

I asked Ron Kitchens, chief executive officer with Southwest Michigan First, why he thought I continued to get these type of senseless emails from economic development organizations. He replied with his own question, which was really a brief answer and exactly to the point.

“How hard is it to sort out a database?”

How hard indeed? Frankly, I don’t think it should be difficult at all, and yet so many ED groups won’t do it. It leaves me baffled, and I’ve talked to other consultants who feel the same way.

Do Stay in Touch

But again, I want to reiterate that I welcome emailed communications from economic development organizations. I actually save these emails in an Outlook folder, as they could prove very helpful to me at future date.

I want to know about won projects and even lost projects. I want to know why a company chose to expand in your community and if an exceptional building or site has become available.

I want to know about workforce training initiatives and if an industry cluster has developed in an area. I want to know how and why a community has targeted certain industry groups and what progress has been made.

In short, I want economic development organizations to stay in touch with me and provide information that I might be able to actually use. And if they come to Dallas, I welcome the opportunity to meet with them if I am available. And I will try my best to be available.

Just don’t invite me to a breakfast or a luncheon a thousand miles away. That accomplishes nothing, junks up my email, and leaves me irritable.

So take it from me, sort that database, give me information that I can use, and everything will be gravy.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-767-9518. If you liked what you read here, invite me to speak at your next meeting. © Unauthorized use is prohibited.

Baseball, Hot Dogs and Relationship Building

In Site Selection on March 16, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Wherever we live, whatever the culture we come from, whatever religion that we may hold, people have kicked or thrown a ball.

Probably well before people were scratching images on cave walls, they were playing with sticks and rudimentary balls. Such play, defines us as being human and brings us together.

And it was baseball, a distinctly American game that is now played worldwide, which taught me the concept and the importance of team. When I first started playing organized ball back in the ’60s, I was attending an elementary school in rural America where the principal actually took time off to work in the fields at harvest time.

I still have my trophy, with the figure of a batter on top. It is laughably small but it meant so much to me then and still does now, as it reminds me that I played second base on a team called the Pirates that won a league championship. I even played in the all-star game.

Leave it to say, baseball has been very, very good to me.

To Know the Heart and Mind of America

”Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” Jacques Barzun, the social commentator, wrote more than a quarter of a century ago.

And who cannot remember the speech given James Earl Jones, playing the role of Terrence Mann, in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”

The National Pastime Comes to Florida

And they did come to Florida, specifically for baseball, starting in the late 19th century. That was about the same time that sportswriters began dropping the phrase “national pastime” into their stories.

The Philadelphia Phillies were the first of the current major-league teams to train in Florida, when they spent two weeks in Jacksonville in 1889.

By the 1920s, with improved train and auto travel, Florida was becoming the hub of spring training. The warm winters and the enticements offered by local boosters, the forefathers to today’s economic developers, began to draw the attention of baseball executives.

The importance of baseball to Florida’s economy today became quite apparent to me last week, courtesy of Enterprise Florida Inc., the public-private statewide economic development organization. I was among a dozen site selection consultants invited to come and experience Spring Training and, boy howdy, did I have a blast.

The Impact of Team Factories

Fifteen Major League Baseball (MLB) teams operate spring training facilities in Florida, which in actuality are human resource factories designed to identify the big league players of tomorrow and sharpen the skills of the veteran players. Each team facility operate year-round and employ hundreds of people, including the players, at any given time.

The Florida Sports Foundation estimates the annual economic impact of the 15 spring-training teams, which play a 241-game schedule in 14 locations in Florida’s Grapefruit League, to be $700 million in economic impact.

Last year, more than 1.47 million fans attended the spring training games, the bulk of whom were tourists from other states.

A recent report compiled by the University of West Florida’s Haas Center showed that 13.3 million visitors came to the state of Florida for the sole purpose of sports and recreation, which was responsible for $44.4 billion in total economic output, or roughly 3.5 percent of the state‘s Gross State Product.

The sports and recreation industry supports more than 431,000 jobs and contributes more than $16 billion in wages to Floridians. Now those are some strong numbers, indeed, which is why Florida is not above granting tax incentives to MLB teams that want to expand their footprint in the state.

The Spring Training Baseball Franchise incentive is the state’s funding mechanism to attract and retain MLB spring training facilities in Florida. Teams are eligible for up to $500,000 annually for up to 30 years.

These dollars are typically pledged with designated Tourist Development Tax revenue and other local government resources to secure bonds to fund the acquisition, construction, or renovation of spring training facilities. Makes sense to me.

A New Team Manager

Heading the economic development delegation that welcome us site selection consultants to the Sunshine State was Bill Johnson, the newly appointed Secretary of Commerce and president/CEO of Enterprise Florida, Inc.

I liked Bill Johnson almost immediately. For one, he frequently paid homage to his predecessor, Gray Swoope, one of the most talented economic developers in the country and who turned the mindset around about economic development in Florida.

When Gray first took the job at EFI four years ago, I thought, “What in the hell is he thinking?”

Let’s just say that Florida then was not known for embracing economic development. Indeed, economic development was viewed indifferently or even suspiciously by many, including state legislators and local government officials.

While there continues to be no-growth mentality among some, economic development is far better understood and respected in Florida today, and I give Gray, and the professional staff that he assembled at EFI, much of the credit for that attitude turnaround.

So Bill, previously the director of Port of Miami, takes over from a bit of a superstar, albeit one that has gone over to the dark side (consulting). Gray is partnering with his former boss, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, in the formation of a new firm, essentially a subsidiary of the Butler Snow law firm, called VisionFirst Advisors.

Now I sure like the sound of that. Judging from what I read on their website, I’m not quite sure what they’re going to be doing. I think it’s what former President George W. Bush would call “strategery.”

But back to Bill, a fellow who displays much energy and seems to have a deep understanding of the importance of logistics and infrastructure, which should prove advantageous to both recruiting new companies and expanding existing ones in the state.

But even with his very solid background, Bill will do well to listen to Griff Salmon, executive vice president and COO; and Melissa Medley, senior vice president and chief marketing officer. These two are consummate pros, who left top economic development positions in Mississippi to join Gray at EFI. They have done great service to Florida and I hope they stay.

When Bill first addressed the consultants, he said the intention of our time together was not to talk about business but to simply have fun. But during the course of my 3 1/2 days in Florida, I talked with a lot of economic developers about their communities.

I also got to see the New York Yankees play the Boston Red Sox on Wednesday in Tampa; the Detroit Tigers play the Philadelphia Phillips in Lakeland on Thursday, and the Atlanta Braves play the Detroit Tigers on Friday in Kissimmee.

This was relationship building at its best, just using a backdrop of spring training baseball to bring us – the consultants and the economic developers — together. And that is what baseball does so well.

We talked over hot dogs and beers, about local major employers, workforce development initiatives and the aerospace industry, among other things, all the while watching the games. And it really doesn’t get any better than that.

Yes, baseball has been very, very good to me.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-767-9518.

A Step Back in Time

In Site Selection on March 9, 2015 at 8:55 am

His photographs, documenting the absolute brutality of the moment, shocked a nation, and were instrumental in leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

James “Spider” Martin was a photographer for The Birmingham News, a newspaper that I worked for 15 years. Mr. Martin, now deceased, left the paper before I joined it back in 1984.

Mr. Martin was at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965, to do his job, whereas the courageous marchers, whether they knew it at the time or not, were there to make history. And they did.

While trying to wipe the tear gas from his eyes, Mr. Martin used one of his cameras to block a blow from a trooper’s club. He recalled the Alabama state trooper saying, “Excuse me, I thought you’s a nigger.”

Mr. Martin, who was white, remembered thinking, “Alabama, God damn, why did you let it happen here?”

I have been to Selma many times in different past roles as journalist, economic developer, and consultant. And each time, I have had this strange feeling that I was entering a time warp, taking a step back in time to a place resistant of change.

Paraphrasing Mr. Martin’s thoughts, I have wondered, “Alabama, why did you let it happen at all? Why did you fight freedom and progress?”

A Narrative of Place

Today, as a consultant for both industry and economic development organizations, I think of myself as a place investigator. Given enough time on the ground, all places speak to me.

Whether I consciously know it or not, I am factoring in things like geography, terrain, people, history, industry and commerce. All come together to present a narrative of place and a picture forms.

And while I may employ GIS and sophisticated data bases in a site search for a company, in the end, I am looking for that narrative, that story of place that speaks to me and the client company that I am working for.

Every time that I have been to Selma, I have left confused and pondering, “What is it about this place? Why is this place so … different?”

It’s Not Even the Past

Mississippian William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I think this fits Selma to the T, a complex place not easily understood by even other native Alabamians who are not from there. Not far from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named after a former confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader, is a billboard set up by a group dedicated to honoring Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The sign, set up in recent days, invites visitors to see “Selma’s War Between The States Historic Sites.” But it also features a picture of the Confederate flag and an image of Forrest, who was also a Confederate general and a slave trader before the Civil War.

Beside Forrest’s picture is a quote adopted by his men: “Keep the skeer on ‘em.”

Not surprisingly, many find the billboard offensive.

“It should be taken down,” Flossie Menifee, 67, who grew up in Selma, told a reporter with the New York Daily News. “The Ku Klux Klan, the hatred, the prejudice, I think it’s always going to be in Selma.”

Not surprisingly, Patricia Goodwin, head of the group Friends of Forrest Inc., doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about, which is revealing.

Defined Black and White

I have concluded this city is a very defined black and white place. Back in 1965, it was evenly divided, whereas today it is now 80 percent black. Correspondingly, Selma now has black leaders in positions of power, including the mayor, police chief, district attorney, six out of eight city council members.

But there remains a perceptible Old South mentality of white racial superiority among a minority here.

The Los Angeles Times reported that a former white city councilman, surveying the scene of downtown preparation for the 50th anniversary commemoration of Bloody Sunday, said, “It’s going to be nothing but a nigger street party.”

That same city councilman voted along with two other council members to use city funds to pay for a statute of Nathan Bedford Forrest in 2000.

Still, people are people, even if they see the world through different lens. Certainly friendships have formed and some black and white citizens have bonded together to bring economic prosperity to Selma.

An Island to Itself

But it largely hasn’t happened. Selma hasn’t blossomed into something much better in the aftermath of what happened on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. History may have happened here, the fruits of which society as a whole has benefited from, but history has seemed to bypass Selma.

I have always viewed Selma as sort of an island, rather isolated off by itself and not particularly easy to get to. I introduced the city to some Canadian investors who wanted to build a gum/candy manufacturing operation there.

That business didn’t happen, more because of the ineptness of the Canadians than anything Selma did. But it should be noted that a lot of things haven’t happened in Selma.

Alabama’s Third World

Dallas County, of which Selma is the county seat, was Alabama’s poorest county last year. The county’s population peaked in 1960 at 56,667 people, dropping to 43,820 in 2010, with a population that is 69.4 percent black and 29.1 percent white.

Selma has an unemployment rate of 10.2 percent nearly twice that of the national rate of 5.5 percent. The median household income in Selma from 2009 to 2013 was $22,478 – nearly half that of the state – with 41.9 percent of people in the city living below the poverty level.

The violent crime rate is five times the state average. Selma City Schools system, were taken over last year by the Alabama State Department of Education after a months-long investigation into allegations of academic issues, poor student performance, shoddy record keeping, and sexual misconduct.

My former employer, The Birmingham News, called the region, known as the Black Belt because of its rich soil, “Alabama’s Third World.”

“Selma sowed, but it did not reap,” James Perkins Jr., who became the city’s first African-American mayor in 2000 told USA Today. “So many of the benefits that went to other places in the South and around the world since the Voting Act of 1965 did not come to Selma. I hope this 50th anniversary will help Selma begin reaping some of those benefits.”

I think the mayor’s comments are accurate. Selma has not reaped from that which was sown. Sad but true.

A Night at the St. James

Some years back, I spent a night in the historic St. James Hotel in downtown Selma overlooking the Alabama River. The hotel had a charm about it, even if the towels were threadbare.

Walking around the downtown, I couldn’t help but notice wonderful architecture but so many of the buildings were in a state of decay and boarded up. Not much has changed.

The city now owns the St. James, and has contracted with a management company to run day-to-day operations, but it remains a money losing operation with a high vacancy rate. I’m sure there are better towels there now.

I’ll see you down the road.

Postscript, Monday, March 9. I have just watched a video on CNN in which members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were engaged in a racist chant that included references to lynching. The video was reportedly shot on Saturday, the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. This proves that ignorance and willful idiocy is by no means solely relegated to a small town in Alabama. Sadly, this malignancy extends even to our nation’s institutions of higher learning. Lord, help us.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com

If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing to attract business investment, we can help. And if you liked what you read here, invite me to speak at your next meeting.

© Unauthorized use is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used with permission.

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