Dean Barber

Archive for August, 2013|Monthly archive page

Detroit vs. Everybody: Mending the Fabric of a City

In Places on August 25, 2013 at 8:48 am

DETROIT – The city’s flag says it all: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus: We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.

In a fast-paced two-day tour of this city, I saw the ashes and I saw the rising, and I left here torn, confused and yet inspired. I still am to some degree.

I saw things that I should never have seen in the richest country in the world (although I asked to see them). And then I saw some things that had me convinced that this city has the bones and the brains to reclaim greatness and that it will surely happen.

This is not an easy blog to write.

Photographing a Ghost

Three weeks after the Michigan Central Rail Depot opened here in 1913, Henry Ford announced the $5 workday, leading this city to become the richest city in America.

A newly hired autoworker today earns $14 an hour, which adjusted for inflation, is about what Ford was paying in 1913. And today, the iconic downtown train station is a windowless ghost.

I feel guilty about it, but like so many tourists who come from all over the world to  to gape at the “ruin porn,” I, too, photographed the train station. I couldn’t help myself.

Risk vs. Rewards

Judging risk is what I do. When I represent a company that wants to start a new factory, I want that plant to go to a place where it makes the most sense. Location investigation, not a core competency for corporate America but my core competency, hinges on many factors. Risk management plays center stage in site selection.

A lot of companies and people gave up on Detroit. They no longer thought it made sense to be there and site selected themselves right out of town, seeking opportunities elsewhere.

I understand that, but I was determined not to let history necessarily color my beliefs as to the possibilities that may exist here. At least that is what I told myself going into my visit, as sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

My friend and almost neighbor, Tim Feemster with Dallas-based Foremost Quality Logistics, joined me on an expedition for facts and truth.

I Found Life

Not surprisingly, I found evidence of a new life form among the ashes. There is, in fact, an entrepreneurial, creative class that is growing along Woodward Avenue, the city’s north-south spine, from the central business district, up to midtown and into New Center.

Young professionals working in advertising agencies and PR firms, graphic design and film production studios, are building a life here because their own personal risk analysis says it’s a go. Who am I to tell them otherwise?

This is the big story that I saw – a Detroit that reinvents itself into a creative hub where the world of design emerges and where youth is the common denominator.

I saw this firsthand at Detroit Labs, which develops apps, and started with four people and now employs about 40. The medium age is 30 and t-shirts and jeans are the norm.

The company had just moved into new open space where furnishings were sparse but not the ideas.

Design, Create, Build

Youth and creativity were on display at the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (“DC3”), a partnership between Business Leaders for Michigan and the College for Creative Studies, which has a mission of educating visual artists and designers. DC3’s purpose: nurture and grow a creative local economy.

In the same building with DC3, there is a company called Shinola, whose theme is “Where American is made.”  Shinola builds watches — the kind that a grandfather would want to pass down to grandson. Leave to say, these are beautiful watches and they are made in Detroit.

From the company’s website: “We’re starting with the reinvigoration of a storied American brand, and a storied American city. Because we believe in the beauty of industry. The glory of manufacturing. We know there’s not just history in Detroit, there is a future.”

Incredible to me is that Shinola’s parent company, Bedrock Brands, is based in Plano, Texas, where I am based. I didn’t know scheisse about Shinola until I went to Detroit.

A Crazed Mission

I saw this youth-driven future yet again on display while touring Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm on a self-described “crazed mission’ of providing support to seed and early-stage technology companies and thereby rebuild Detroit.

From the Detroit Venture’s website: “We view business building as a palette for creative expression and an opportunity to make a difference … The world doesn’t need another me-too anything, especially another venture firm. So we are different by design.

“We’re proud to break the rules, and love shaking things up. We’re not snooty academics or number-crunching CPA’s. We are passionate entrepreneurs that know how to build successful companies from the ground up. While others are over-analyzing, we’re busy doing.”

Detroit vs. Everybody

There is a T-shirt making the rounds that I think exemplifies the passion of doing: “Detroit vs. Everybody.”

Graphic Designer Tommy Walker gave this explanation of his creation to the Detroit Free Press:  “To see how much Detroit has contributed to the culture of America, I just felt we don’t get the credit. … I see a very beautiful, positive Detroit.”

A beautiful and positive Detroit is not America’s impression of this place but it is what Dan Gilbert is banking on. Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, has snapped up about 25 buildings in the downtown, about 7 million square feet in all. It’s here he is apparently making his stand and statement.

The Wizard Behind the Curtain

The Detroit Venture website lists Gilbert as general partner and “all around deranged super-genius” and “the wizard behind the curtain.” He encourages an irreverent corporate culture encapsulated in a book called “ISMs in Action,” which is characterized by humor and a lot of good sense.

While I never met him, I have to think that Gilbert is consumed with passion if not more than a little business savvy.  His “Opportunity Detroit” brand, seen emblazoned on windows downtown, is both a rescue mission and a business plan that can make him, a wealthy entrepreneur, even wealthier.

Like a number of local businesses, Gilbert has contributed funding toward a future 3.3-mile streetcar line on Woodward between downtown Detroit and the New Center area.

An Irrelevant City Government

Debt-ridden city government doesn’t appear to be much in the mix for funding the street car or much of anything. I soon determined that city government was something to be worked around, a virtual non-factor in the development plans of both the business community and for those non-profit organizations dedicated to revitalization.

If Detroit bankruptcy does anything, it may make an irrelevant city government relevant one day. That is at least the hope. For now, it is viewed largely as an obstacle to be avoided whenever possible.

I have spent a majority of this blog telling you of this great awakening that I have witnessed in Detroit. It is real and I believe it will continue based on what I saw and heard.

But there is another Detroit out there. If growth is taking place in downtown, midtown and New Center, keep in mind this is an area of about seven or eight square miles in a city of 140 square miles.

Nature Reclaims 

I asked my good hosts at the Detroit Regional Chamber to take me into the other Detroit where the fabric of community and place has been long broken. And to their credit, they did.

I was walking in an area of Corktown. I might as well been out on the prairie, as nature had reclaimed block after block of what was once had been a neighborhood. “Vacant crap” was how one of my hosts described it.

The houses were gone, having been burned and bulldozed away. I was walking on a sidewalk bordering waist tall grass when I flushed a large ringneck pheasant, a wild rooster that would have been at home in the grasslands of South Dakota.

Here was nature reclaiming Detroit. I only wish I had been carrying my shotgun.

The Ugly Numbers

So I have this inch-thick report that I intend to actually read. It’s the 2012 Detroit Strategic Framework Plan. But I got a briefing on it from the staff from the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the agency that provides the hand holding for any company seeking to start operations in the city.

One of the goals, probably the most worthy goal in my opinion, is to double the number of jobs available in the city. And this is where it gets ugly.

About 60 percent of employed Detroiters work outside the city, which correspondingly means about 40 percent work within the city. Only 30 percent of Detroit jobs are held by Detroiters, which means that 70 percent of the jobs are held by commuters.

Of the 300,000 new jobs projected for Southeast Michigan by 2040, only 2 percent are projected to go to Detroit, where there are only 27 jobs per 100 residents. Nearly 70 percent of Detroiters without a high school diploma are unemployed or do not participate in the labor force. Twenty percent of two-year degree holders live in poverty.

These are daunting numbers, discouraging numbers, but thankfully Detroit has at least identified implementation strategies that can, if truly enacted, make a bad situation much better. Improving skills and supporting education reform has to happen if there is to be any broad-based revival of a vibrant middle class.

It simply has to or much of the fabric of this city will stay broken. I have posted some photographs from my trip on Instagram –http://instagram.com/barberbusinessadvisors

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 based in Plano, Texas.

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, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

Telephone: 972-767-9518. Email: dbarber@barberadvisors.com  Visit our website at http://www.barberadvisors.com

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.

Dream Cruising Near Paradise

In Places on August 17, 2013 at 10:17 pm

PONTIAC, Mich. – Truly I had no idea that I had such an affinity for old Corvettes, vintage 1950s-60s, until experiencing the Woodward Dream Cruise.

But back in my hotel room Friday night, I was reviewing the photos that I had taken earlier in the day of the parade of mostly vintage cars. And there is no doubt about it — I have this thing for old Corvettes. This is proof yet again that I am becoming a geezer.

My most able handler and host, Mark Adams, senior manager with Oakland County Economic Development & Community Affairs, is a GTO man. His preferred color: black.

Brent Pollina revealed his good ol’ boy side when a reproduction of “General Lee,” the car featured on the Dukes of Hazzard, iconic television programming from the 1980s, drove by our viewing stands on Woodward Avenue.

“I used to love watching that show when I was a kid,” Pollina confided.

Leaning over to Pollina, vice president of Chicago-based Pollina Corporate Real Estate, with a beer in my hand, I said, “Yea, I was a Masterpiece Theatre man myself.”

Brent and I were among a group of a dozen or so site selection consultants invited by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to come and kick the tires. Being that I was smack dab in car country, that was not hard to do.

The Woodward Dream Cruise runs from Pontiac in the north to Ferndale in the south, all within the confines of Oakland County. While the other consultants were assigned to other parts of the state, Brent and I were in Oakland County for two days. And I am glad as I may have not discovered my my latent love for old Corvettes.

As the show must go on, I began writing this blog from a coffee shop lounge at a Marriott hotel in Pontiac on Saturday morning before venturing out again to Woodward Avenue to ogle at more vintage cars. I am completing it late Saturday night while at the Westin Hotel at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

But I am not flying out on Sunday. No, I am to meet my handlers at 5:30 am and board a bus at 6 am, to be transported to the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., where I am to spend most of Sunday in a suite watching the Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race.

As I like my NASCAR as much as the next Masterpiece Theatre aficionado, I am really looking forward to this. I do hope I can partake of crumpets with my Bud Light.

But I am not here as an accidental tourist, even if that may result from my work as a consultant. I am actually here to learn, and what I have learned about Oakland County is most impressive.

All places are different, with both attributes and liabilities, but this place is very different from most. For one thing, it’s one of the richest counties in the United States. That was quite apparent in my windshield tour of such communities as Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Farmington Hills. This is the haunt of highly paid automotive executives who wanted to live and work within commuting distance of Detroit.

Make no mistake about it, this was originally a bedroom community to Detroit, although some may feel that it has outgrown that status now. Oakland County is directly north of and borders Wayne County, which is where Detroit is located.

So you have one of the richest counties, with a Triple A bond rating, literally on the doorstep of a city that has just filed for bankruptcy and where there exists great swaths of abject poverty and ruin. The have and have nots live cheek and jowl here.

(But a vibrant core of Detroit does, in fact, exist, which I hope to see firsthand on Monday and Tuesday, and which could be the subject of my next blog.)

But for moment, my attention is on Oakland County, where I spent two days. Spanning 910 square miles, Oakland County has about 1.2 million residents. I was told that about one-third of all economic activity in the state of Michigan takes place within Oakland County, although I’ve seen no hard numbers substantiating that

But with about 42,000 businesses, and having about 950 foreign-owned companies here, it is clear that Oakland County is an economic powerhouse within the state.

As the automotive industry remains king here, the county’s economy hit bottom in 2009 when General Motors and Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Nearly 60,000 jobs were lost in the county that year.

By 2011, Oakland County’s economy turned sharply, adding more than 24,000 jobs, its second best performance since 1994. More than 23,000 jobs were created again in 2012. The good news is that over half of the jobs came in high-wage industries, where the average pay was $82,495.

But there is a long way to go. From peak employment in the summer of 2000 to its trough at the end of 2009, the county lost nearly 167,000 jobs, over half of them during 2008 and 2009. Since then, the county has added more than 60,000 jobs as of the third quarter of 2012.

No doubt, a revived auto industry with rebounding sales has helped fuel much of the job growth. But Oakland County is not a one-trick pony nor wants to be. Medical Main Street – a life sciences and healthcare initiative, has generated more than $840 million in new investment and has created or retained more than 5,800 jobs.

What’s more, MMS is projected to create more than 45,000 jobs in Oakland County in the next five years. That ain’t chicken feed, folks. And neither is the fact that in the past eight years, companies have invested about $2 billion in the county in emerging sectors that include alternative energy and power generation and communications and information technology.

Now it is one thing when I hear economic developers and politicians talk about their product – that is, their community. I expect them to be advocates and to put their spin on the story, as they rightly should.

In a letter from L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County Executive, he ends it on a more than hopeful note.

“No matter where you are in Oakland County, you’re never far from paradise.”

You got to hand it to Mr. Patterson, he is none too shy with his rhetoric, which is often the case with elected officeholders.

But when industry executives speak of a place, I tend to listen more carefully and put more credibility into what they say.  They are typically not shills but tell it like they see it. And if I hear a consistent message from them, I will take notice.

I was hearing a consistent message from business people in Oakland County, and it was that they usually did not have to stray too far for the talent that they need. Indeed, the technical/engineering/IT/healthcare/knowledge-based talent seemed to be present within the community.

This is not true in many places. Sometimes, that technical knowhow well is near dry. If I am representing a manufacturing client in a site selection project, those are places to be bypassed and avoided.

So it would appear that companies in Oakland County can draw on a sufficient amount of technical knowledge and brainpower to invest and expand. That is a pretty good barometer to watch.

“The real estate opportunities are good, the school systems are great, and we’re surrounded by some of the best feeder university systems in the country,” said Nathaniel McClure, who moved Scientifically Proven Entertainment from Los Angeles to Oakland County in 2009.

The largest increases in employment in Oakland County have come from professional and business services, exemplified by McClure’s company. That share of total jobs has expanded from 17.8 percent in 1990 to 25.3 percent in 2012. During the same period, manufacturing, which represented 16 percent of all jobs in the county in 1990, fell to 8.8 percent in 2012.

Technology entrepreneurs can tap into an expansive network of resources through Automation Alley, which I had the opportunity to tour in a business park in Troy. This is more than your typical incubator. It is a place where local member companies can come to be advised on matters of workforce development and technology acceleration, funding, commercialization, and business plan assistance to name a few.

For international companies, it also serves as a soft landing space to explore opportunities on doing business in Southeast Michigan. Attracting foreign investment is an important play for Oakland County. Among the literature provided to me was a 30-page brochure entitled “Global Outlook.”

I could not read it as the entire contents were written in German. But for those who do, be advised that Oakland County “ist ein Geschäftszentrum mit einem welweiten Führungsanspruch.”

So that may or may not be important. I really don’t know. What is important from my standpoint is getting up at 4:30 in the morning, which borders on cruelty. Still, these Michiganders have been very nice to me, so I will be nice back. Now I need to dream cruise on to bed.

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 based in Plano, Texas.

If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America due to expansion or consolidation, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

Telephone: 972-767-9518. Email: dbarber@barberadvisors.com  Visit our website at http://www.barberadvisors.com

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.

Perils in Marketing: Writing My Brochure

In Marketing on August 11, 2013 at 7:16 am

The hardest thing about good writing is to make it not so hard to read. You should make it flow real easy like.

After a 20-year stint in the newspaper industry, you would think that wordsmithing would come naturally to me. But writing is never an easy affair for those who labor over the words they choose, although very occasionally a piece will “write itself.”

So I am in the midst of rewriting a brochure on site selection consulting aimed exclusively at a corporate audience. (I have a completed brochure outlining my consulting services to economic development organizations. If you want a pdf copy, just ask and I will email it to you. If you are another consultant, don’t ask.)

This future brochure has been a tougher nut to crack. I have written and re-written it many times and none to my full liking.  Mind you, it is not because of fuzzy thinking on my part about what constitutes a proper and thorough site search. No, I have my processes in place. I got that part down.

Concise and Punchy

This is more about presentation – how much is enough and how much is too much. The very fact that this is a brochure means it will not be a white paper or a treatise. Rather, this is to be a concise and punchy marketing piece, pure and simple. The goal is for it to be actually read by potential client companies.

In the fewest words possible, I hope to intrigue a company, which is typically a hard-edged manufacturer, into the belief that I can save senior management time, money and heartache by engaging in a process that few of them would or even should know much about.

Of course, many companies do try to engage in site selection on their own. But I would submit that they don’t know what they don’t know, which proves to be a perilous journey when of millions of capital investment dollars are at risk.

Concentrate on What You do Best

The fact is that a company’s core competencies are how it competes in the marketplace. It is what it does – concentrating on its root business — that matters most. If management chooses to venture into unknown territory, chances are that mistakes will be made.

I’ve seen some real costly blunders when companies attempt their hand at site selection simply for the lack of experience and knowledge.

I hope to show in this future brochure that this site selection thing is a phased, winnowing, investigative process designed to take a company where it need to be and that it is best driven by an experienced hand. (That would be me or rather my firm.)

So I will have to show that site selection is data driven with risk management taking center stage. The challenge is how to explain this coherently in a short amount of space. (Earlier this week, I read another consultant’s lengthy attempt at explaining site selection and how should I say this delicately? – Horrible. Just really bad.)

Will It Be Read?

Now there is this view, one which I actually put a lot of stock into, that brochures are largely meaningless, obsolete endeavors — that you can put a lot of money into a lot of glossy paper that will never be read. In fact, most brochures will end up in the proverbial round file.

Still, that does not dissuade many companies from coming up with intricate and involved and no doubt costly brochures that I would no more read than I would roller-skate in a buffalo herd. (Thank you, Roger Miller.) I am not interested into venturing into War and Peace.

I am convinced that more is less and that there is a certain beauty to simplicity. And therein lies the challenge to effective brochure writing.

My Crash Test Dummies

I feel lucky to have a network of professional friends around the country whom I trust to bounce ideas off. They are my crash test dummies, but they are far from dummies. Indeed, they are very smart people, which is why I will periodically turn to them for critical review.

Critical review does not mean affirmation, although if that happens, it makes my job much easier. No, critical review is just that – it’s asking those whose judgment I trust to tell me what they think is right or wrong about some planned endeavor of mine. And it’s usually centered on a marketing piece.

Start with Words

As words mean something, they are my basic building blocks. With words I hope to convey thoughts and images and possibly influence at least some of my readers. That is the foundation for advertising and marketing. So I must choose my words carefully.

Last week, I spoke to group of economic developers in West Tennessee.  I included in my presentation – A Consultant’s View: How Communities Should Compete for Capital Investment — a rather silly slide that was a take-off on the Direct TV ads that are so stupid that they are brilliant. So I had fun with my own version.

When you are inexperienced, you want to get experience.

When you want to get experience, you join the merchant marines.

When you join the merchant marines, you go to exotic ports of call.

When you go to exotic ports of call, you get a tattoo.

When you get a tattoo, you get more tattoos.

And when you get more tattoos, you are mistaken for a pirate and thrown into a foreign jail.

Don’t get thrown into a foreign jail, get Barber Business Advisors.

My Skepticism

It’s no secret that I have been critical of communities and economic development organizations spending gobs of money on branding. (See Guilt by Suspicion and the Big Hoax.) I continue to remain skeptical simply because of how I go about working a site search project.

Again, this is data driven process where assets and liabilities are weighed and analyzed. If we are looking for a 100-acre, utility-served site, within 10 miles of an interstate, served by rail and with a surrounding workforce possessing certain prescribed capabilities, then truly the colors you use, the logo design that you employ, even the words you so carefully choose to describe yourself matters not.

I say that and then here I am sweating over a damn brochure. Go figure.

Bribed with Starbucks

Periodically, I will engage in marketing surveys, especially when I am bribed to do so. One marketing company that specializes in helping economic development organizations gives me a Starbucks gift card when I take one of their surveys.

The survey usually begins by asking about my general impressions of a wide range of communities within a vast region of the country. But then it narrows down to the point where I am quite certain of the client community that is being represented. And then the questions get really pointed, to the degree that they are trying to put a guilt trip on me.

“So why haven’t you brought a project to Hoofinmouth, Idaho? What is wrong with you?”

A False God?

Recently, I engaged in an interactive, web-based survey in which an ad firm executive showed me images and words describing a certain Midwestern state. I was promised $75 for that one.

So they showed me four or five one-page design pieces, all very attractive. I was their crash test dummy. But I came to conclusion that I didn’t like any of the slides as is, but would take elements of each and cobble together a new Frankenpiece,

And then I had the audacity to drop a bombshell on the poor woman who was questioning me.

“You know, I really don’t think this branding effort will play any role in me representing a client during a site selection process. We’re really not considering this kind of stuff.”

In short, I was telling an idol worshipper that she was praying to a false god, which served no purpose in me saying, even if it was true.

Cutting Through the Clutter

Every day we are bombarded with images and sales pitches and almost become numb to it all. Does any message, anything at all, get through in this marketing tidal wave that washes over me daily?

I’m not sure. I remember the Direct TV ads even if I do not use the service. I don’t recall ever seeing an ad for a Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, but I own one.

In the end, I have to think that I can best cut through the clutter by showing competence and value. That’s what I want to convey in my corporate brochure for site selection. I am the safe choice if not the best choice and here’s why.

Another Seed of Doubt

I will likely include a graphic that shows how the site selection process works. I sketched it out on a piece of paper and gave it to a professional graphics artist who made my idea look, well, professional.

When I showed the graphic to a crash test dummy friend, he warned that someone would likely reproduce it and call it their own. Now why did you have to go and plant yet another seed of doubt?

But I am about tired of my vacillating. I have listened to my friends and have accepted and incorporated some of their ideas while rejecting others. There has never been a consensus as to what is best.

I’ll just do my best and get this brochure thing put to bed. It’s time to move on.

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 based in Plano, Texas.

If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America due to expansion or consolidation, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

Telephone: 972-767-9518. Email: dbarber@barberadvisors.com  Visit our website at http://www.barberadvisors.com

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.

 

 

A Place of Promise

In Places on August 4, 2013 at 6:42 am

JACKSON, Tenn. — So here I stood at the very spot, marked by a plaque on the lawn of the Madison County Courthouse, where an angry Davy Crockett, having just lost his bid for re-election to Congress in 1835, announced his future intentions.

“You can go to hell, but I am going to Texas.”

Texas did not work out so well for Davy. He and his Tennessee Mounted Volunteers arrived at a crumbling mission called the Alamo at San Antonio de Béxar in early February 1836 in the midst of a war with Mexico. They would not ride out.

The Alamo would be avenged. Sam Houston and his motley rebel army would defeat the Mexican army of General Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836. Five months later, Houston, a former governor of Tennessee, was elected the first president of the Republic of Texas.

The Link of History

So Texas and Tennessee are inextricably linked by their history. This past week, I had the pleasure of having dinner with a group of economic developers that included three natives of Alamo, Tenn., the county seat of, you guessed it, Crockett County.

I was in West Tennessee at the invitation of the Jackson Regional Partnership, which represents a nine-county region, which includes Crockett County. The other counties are Madison, Henderson, Carroll, Gibson, Haywood, Hardeman, Chester and McNairy.

At the bequest of my host, I gave a speech/presentation at the Jackson Chamber – A Consultant’s View: How Communities Compete in a Site Selection Project – with a degree of gusto that left no one asleep in my audience. (The juggling of cats always helps.)

But I also stayed an extra day and a half to tour the region, as I can learn only so much about a place by staring at a computer screen. Whenever possible, I like to put my boots on the ground to get a better understanding.  Familiarization tours generally are a good thing.

A Losing Proposition

Even if I am not charged with wowing an audience, I do require compensation for my time. While I was in Tennessee, I received a curious email from an economic development organization representing a major market that has professional sports teams. They offered me all of a $500 stipend to come for a familiarization tour.

Now that amount would probably not cover my air fare, much less hotel accommodations, meals, and compensate me for three days out of my schedule. Indeed, I would lose money if I accepted that offer.

Of course, I am not in business to lose money, even if I do offer my consulting services gratis on occasion. So I wrote back to this big city economic development group. I thanked them for the invitation, and explained why I could not accept their terms. I have yet to receive a reply. Maybe they will come to their senses.

Analysis Matters

Now I will admit to having a certain fondness for Tennessee. My mother’s side of my family is from there, and I spent some childhood years in Chattanooga. But in my role as a site selection consultant, my personal feelings do not much matter.

To serve a corporate client well, I cannot allow for personal biases, either pro or con, to enter the picture as millions of dollars are at stake. No, serious qualitative and quantitative analysis is what is needed for what will constitute a phased culling process. At least, that is how site selection process should work.

Based on what I saw and heard during my visit to Jackson and the surrounding region, I do have some initial impressions on strengths and weaknesses. Mind you, they are not as deep or sticking as they would be if I were engaged to do an in-depth analysis. Still, my trip to West Tennessee gave me a better idea of what this place is about, which is what both my hosts and I wanted.

Welcoming Wellness

In a land where fried food and sweet tea is served with a loving touch – I indulged in barbecue at lunch and fried catfish that evening – it was a welcomed surprise to learn that the Jackson Chamber was taking this concept of wellness seriously.

It only makes sense as healthier employees make for lower costs, so there is a bottom line aspect here for business. (More and more, watch for companies to not hire smokers.)

Chamber President Kyle Spurgeon understood that the area’s health conditions could be directly tied in to its economic competitiveness when he saw the 2010 County Health Rankings.

“When a company is evaluating Jackson as a prospective location, they look at key location criteria — and wellness outcomes are part of that location criteria search. All other things being equal, a healthier community stands a better shot at getting a project than one that’s unhealthy.”

So I was most impressed with West Tennessee Healthcare Sportsplex with its 17 baseball and softball fields sitting on a 126-acre tract that includes retail. At times, 100 teams are onsite and they come from around the nation, giving local tourism a boost. The Sportsplex sits adjacent to the Ballpark at Jackson where I watched the Jackson Generals prevail over the Huntsville Stars.

The next morning, I toured the LIFT (Living in a Fit Tennessee) Wellness Center, a newly-built, LEED-certified, 84,000-square-foot medical fitness center in downtown Jackson. The LIFT features just about everything you can imagine in turning your moonpie body into something relatively healthy and fit.

The LIFT, which offers an on-site primary care clinic, is the brainchild of the West Tennessee Healthcare, the 10th largest non-profit healthcare system in the United States. Trust me, this is not your daddy’s gym.

The LIFT also serves as the centerpiece to the 17-acre Jackson Walk healthy community, a new development that includes single-family homes, 150 apartments, retail and borders the West Tennessee Farmers’ Market.

All this is happening downtown, which should be transformational in turning the downtown into a more vibrant place. Jackson’s downtown, like most downtowns, is too quiet and too empty at night and on weekends. But Jackson Walk should change that as it has a cool factor written all over it.

James Ross started his healthcare career as an EMT riding in the back of an ambulance. Today, he is the vice president and chief operating officer of West Tennessee Healthcare. I liken that to a private rising through the ranks to become a general.

Mr. Ross gave me a most excellent tour Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, and I can tell you that if I were sick, I would not hesitate going there. This hospital, which turns away no one, prides itself on keeping costs low and bills affordable. Texas hospitals could learn a thing or two from West Tennessee Healthcare.

Das Bunker

Should there ever be a zombie outbreak, this is where I would want to hole up.

Owned and operated by the Jackson Energy Authority, “the bunker” is built into a hillside with three feet of dirt on its roof. It came to be in response to a 1999 tornado and was completed and in use when an F-4 tornado devastated downtown Jackson in May 2003, killing eight people. This is a high-tech command and control center for all JEA utility infrastructure, which includes electric, natural gas, water, waste water and telecommunications.

The degree of utility robust and redundancy as offered by JEA was impressive, particularly in the area of broadband. JEA offers a 100 percent fiber optic network providing high-speed internet, cable television, and local and long distance telephone services

“While we have not done a good job of promoting our system’s value and strengths outside Jackson, we have the same system and capabilities of the system in Chattanooga which promotes itself as ‘gig city’ and having ‘the fastest system in the country’,” said John Nanney, JEA’s vice president of economic and industrial development. “In fact, Chattanooga visited Jackson and modeled their system after ours.”

Turkey Trot

Jackson should be on a good footing to compete for a data center, as the community is one of the 20 designated data center sites in the seven-state service territory of the Tennessee Valley Authority. I will remember the 423-acre Tiger Jones Technology Park, and not only because I watched a flock of turkeys remain on the roadway and run at least 100 yards ahead of our slowly moving vehicle.

Again 100 percent fiber optic gigabit ethernet is available with a bandwidth capacity of up to 500 Mbps to a single customer. The site is remote and private, good for purposes of security and is serviced by underground power lines and a substation capacity of 50,000 kVA. This has data center written all over it.

Space does not permit me to go into much more detail about my visit. I found it intriguing to say the least that Bethel University in Carroll County would actually offer scholarships in bass fishing. I am not making this up. You know, if I could’ve, maybe I would’ve.

Like all places, challenges exist. Public education is not where it should be in Jackson and much of the region, although the communities are now making positive strides. I heard this firsthand behind closed doors from HR managers representing local manufacturers. They are, in fact, pleased with the direction that things are going.

Dr. Verna Ruffin, newly hired to be the superintendent of the Jackson-Madison County School System, approached me after my speech to ask about how to make better inroads in communicating with local manufacturers and employers. Now that is promising.

Promising is how I would describe Jackson and West Tennessee. Manufacturing, with 10 automotive suppliers, is strong here for good reason as building blocks are in place. And I met a group of young Turk entrepreneurs, mostly IT types, who march to a different beat. They portend the future for Jackson and I am glad they are there.

Kyle Spurgeon summed up important aspects as to what I am looking for on any given project – “location, workforce and the ability to close the deal.”

I could see having future dealings here given the needs of a client. A promising place indeed.

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 based in Plano, Texas.

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