People continue to surprise me. I wasn’t sure how this thing would turn out. Privately, I had my doubts, but I put a brave face on it, because I figured, “What else can I do?” Besides, I was being paid. I had to buck up and make the best of it.
So I just got back from Tallahassee, Fla., where I spoke to Leadership Florida. As speaking engagements are a part of what I do as a consultant, I’ve learned over time to become more at ease with audiences. But I never tried the suggested mental exercise of imagining all members of my audience being naked. Nope, not gonna go there.
A substantial amount of work was done before arriving on the scene in preparation for what we were about to do. My assignment was to present a mock industrial project to a group, I would guess 50 or 60 business people, who were broken up into five teams representing five different regions of Florida. Keep in mind that these were not professional economic developers.
The kicker was that someone from one region of the state would likely represent a different region. The Miami region or the Tampa region or the Jacksonville region or the Central Florida region could be assigned to be a member of the Northwest Florida team or vice versa.
Per the instructions from my good sponsor, Gulf Power Company, an operating subsidiary of the Atlanta-based Southern Company, which is THE electrical power company for 4.4 million customers in the Southeast and makes some of the finest voltage that money can buy, I explained what I did as a site selection consultant. My job is to help companies find optimal locations for future operations when they expand or consolidate. And I briefly detailed to my audience how that process worked.
Then We Lowered the Boom
Then we lowered the boom on them. We passed out a mock request for proposal (RFP) for Project Yum Yum, a $40 million food processing project, employing 110 people with an average production wage of $17 an hour. We went over the RFP with our audience and then opened it up for questions.
When I say “we”, I should tell you that Cliff Krut, a 20-year veteran of economic development and a representative of Gulf Power’s economic development team, was my co-conspirator in this exercise. Cliff was “Bob,” an anonymous senior executive with the anonymous company that I was representing. Bentina Terry, vice president of external affairs and corporate services for Gulf Power, served ably as the master of ceremonies and kept things moving along.
After 15 minutes of taking questions (very good questions by the way), the Florida Leadership teams, armed with the printed RFP, the answers to their questions, and links to websites of the regions that they were to be representing, went off to separate rooms to deliberate on Project Yum Yum. We gave them about 30 minutes to come up with a plan and then come back to give us their best shot – oral presentations on why their respective regions should remain in the hunt.
The teams were told that Project Yum Yum was also considering South Georgia and LA (Lower Alabama), and that Bob and I would only visit two finalist regions in Florida. Their goal then was to not be eliminated from the site selection process.
While the teams were off doing their thing, Cliff (“Bob”) suggested that we add a nasty if not realistic little twist. Let’s add the emotional element — Bob has an Aunt Millie who owns a condo in Destin (Northwest Florida). Because of this, Bob is privately pulling for Northwest Florida. As the site selection consultant, I had to be cognizant of my client’s bias.
The Iceman Cometh
So our pilgrims came back, eager and ready to present. Each team was given seven minutes, which was not fair to them, but our exercise was not designed to put them at ease. I was the cold and calculating consultant, the iceman cometh sort of guy. Bob was there to ask each presenting team as to how far their site was from Destin, which should have told them something.
Northwest Florida was the first team to present. Besides calling me “Dale” throughout their presentation, they did a most credible job. But the subsequent presentations only got better. Each team laid out in surprising detail the assets of their region, including workforce development and training, specifics on the greenfield site being offered, infrastructure, logistics, even financing and incentives. (We were offered free land in some locations.)
I was blown away by how good the presentations were from these laymen. I told our audience afterward that they could pass themselves off as experienced economic developers on TV. (That was a compliment.) But keep in mind that these were very astute and competitive business people. Some presentations actually rivaled what I have heard from certain economic developers, if you can imagine that.
When Bob and I announced our finalist locations that we would be visiting, it was no surprise that Northwest Florida remained in the uncut category. The Central Florida region would also be getting a visit. Bob finally fessed up to his family connection in Destin. No one threw fruit or dog cussed us as a result.
The Right Fit or Not?
Was this exercise realistic or fair? Well, yes and no. As a site selection consultant, I would have already known much of the information that was presented to me by my own research. I would have known that the $17-an-hour wage level would not qualify for incentives under Florida law in many communities because it was simply too low.
In short, we would not have opened it up to all five regions of the state, but concentrated on those rural places where $17-an-hour jobs would be above the median age. It would be in those places where incentives might come into play (although incentives should never be the dominant driving factor in location decisions.)
Cliff/Bob and I were hoping that at least one region might opt out. In other words say thanks but no thanks. But that didn’t happen. They all got their competitive dander up. They all wanted to win.
And therein might lie some truth for all of us, including experienced economic developers, to ponder. Not all projects will be a good fit for your community, so there are times to compete and there are times to gracefully bow out. Times to hold them and times to fold them.
Besides offering what would have been a lower wages for some areas, Project Yum Yum, as a food processing project, would have used a substantial amount of water and waste water. It would not have worked in some communities for that very fact, much less for the wage factor.
The point is that all communities, big and small, should know what they can do well and what they cannot. That might sound obvious, but as a consultant who also provides counsel to economic development organizations, I can tell you that some places have yet to figure that out.
Every community should know its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, as well as possible threats that could arise. Then you try to move the dial.
There is No Nirvana
As I told my audience, there is no perfect place for all businesses. There is no nirvana. Rather, that are better places for certain businesses, where the risks are lessened and the chances for success are enhanced. As a site selection consultant representing a corporate interest, these are the places where we will want to hone in on based on a company’s specific needs.
In my other role as an economic development consultant, my job is to advise communities on how to better leverage strengths and address certain weaknesses when they can be addressed. (If your community is 50 miles from the nearest interstate highway, well, that’s just a fact. We cannot change that. But we can address those issues that we can change.)
If there is anything that comes out of our exercise with Leadership Florida, I hope it is this: I hope our participating business leaders, who seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the exercise, go home with a greater appreciation for the work of their local economic development organizations. In some ways, it’s a thankless endeavor.
A community can do all the right things and still not win a recruitment project. I think our participants may now understand that. Project Yum Yum revealed a group that was far from being dumb dumb.
The Perils of the Job
During my trip to Florida, I heard stories of very experienced and talented economic developers coming and going, largely because they got caught in the crosshairs of a local politician or a business interest with whom they somehow irked. This happens everywhere as many economic developers lead the lives of itinerant coaches. Many will get the boot because of unrealistic expectations from their boards. Again, this happens everywhere.
I submit that if you are doing your job in economic development, you will on occasion ruffle some feathers. Telling the truth can get you in hot water. That is one reason why economic developers hire consultants, like me, to say what they cannot say. They typically will know their own communities far better than any outside consultant ever will. But they also have sense enough to know what they can say and what they cannot say.
If the word comes from them, the local economic developer, it may be viewed with suspicion and even derision. But if the word comes from me, the “enlightened one” with a briefcase from a far away land, ah, then somehow it is gospel. I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, truly I don’t. But Jesus spoke of the impossible task of being viewed as a prophet from your own village. There is so much truth to that.
I am certainly no prophet. But I do have a nice leather briefcase, which my wife gave me for Christmas. I took it with me to Tallahassee, where I hope that I made a difference.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Plano, Texas — www.barberadvisors.com He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at email@example.com
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