Dean Barber

Archive for October, 2015|Monthly archive page

Moving is a Pain, for People and Companies

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on October 26, 2015 at 6:15 am

Believe it or not, I’m still putting my home together. Just think what it is like for a company.

I’ll have a fresh blog next week on the hows and whys of a SWOT analysis that we’re doing for a community. Have a good week. — Dean

Barberbiz

After a week of moving heavy boxes from a former residence to a new one, I am all stove up.

For those don’t know that southernism, it means that I am sore from my earlobes to my toes, as if I were beaten with two by fours. And thus I am more convinced than ever that physical labor does not agree with me and should be avoided whenever possible.

But I could not avoid it last week. While professional movers were hired to pick up and transport our furniture 15 miles from point A to point B, I spent the good part of last week packing and moving boxes in daily trips with my pickup truck.

And it hurt, it really did.

My wife said that I should leave all the packing and box moving for the movers. But I could not do that.

‘Cause when a Texan fancies, he’ll…

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Economic Development Under Assault

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on October 18, 2015 at 10:44 pm

We live in a democracy in which we are fully capable of electing talented people dedicated to improving the public good, as well as low-brow scoundrels bent on achieving power for their own self-serving purposes.

Speaking to the House of Commons in 1947, two years after winning a war but being unseated as prime minister, Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

And so it is. We are constrained and elevated by those to whom we elect, whether they be brilliant or ignorant.

Gridlock and Vilification

We also live in a curious time when politics have become so radicalized, so divisive, that finding solutions by compromise, traditionally the needed lubrication to making government work, is now viewed as weakness and betrayal.

Hence the gridlock and vilification, a political backdrop that too often holds that if someone does not share your views or is of a different political party, then they are not worthy of trust and should not be worked with.

With a middle class that has essentially been shrinking for the past 40 years, much of the electorate is scared and angry, certain of a system rigged against them that favors the ultra-rich and the big corporations.

And they see government, not as so much as the solution, but central to the problem and in collusion with special interests.

Stooges for the Rich and Powerful

This grassroots movement, more destructive than constructive, more revolutionary than reform, has filtered down from the national level to state and local politics.

And I am convinced this is central to why economic developers and the profession of economic development are under assault in so many places.

This suspicion of government and corporate America has given new impetus to the belief, which has always been there, that economic developers are mere stooges for the rich and powerful.

The detractors, the skeptics, and now a wave of newly-elected firebrands that are taking office, subscribe to a doctrine that holds that financial incentives given to a company in return for capital investment equates to nothing more than corporate welfare.

You hear this on the far right, particularly with the emerging Tea Party, and ironically, you hear the same on the far left with a self-described democratic socialist running for president.

And for years you have heard this same mantra — that virtually all incentives are bad and unnecessary — from both the press and academia.

The naysayers hold that economic developers are largely unnecessary because the free market will determine if, how, where and when a company will set up operations, expand or contract.

It’s Happening in Texas

Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Texas Economic Development Council, which was being held in Dallas.

There I spoke to a number of economic developers with excellent track records of success who found themselves under the gun politically because of newly elected officials in their communities.

“Economic developers are tied to government and everybody is suspicious of government right now,” said one attendee to the conference.

“It’s a difficult time and there are a considerable number of players in TEDC who find themselves under attack.”

As a consultant to economic development organizations and to industry, I can tell you that this wave of anti-economic development sentiment is happening nationwide. I hear it on a regular basis, and ironically in places where economic developers have had a history of success.

It’s Happening Nationwide

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how North Carolina’s primary economic development incentive program was being left unfunded because of state legislators who were convinced the program was corporate welfare.

Eventually, North Carolina did pass a budget that restored funding to the Job Development Investment Grant program, but not without prominent economic developers having to go public to argue their case.

It was an ugly scene for a state where economic development has had a long winning tradition.

But with success comes envy, especially from those who purposely seek to cut, eliminate and in some cases raid a tax revenue funding stream.

Tempting Pots of Money

That is the story here in Texas. Economic developers in the Lone Star State are finding themselves in the crosshairs largely due to their success.

Keep in mind that with success comes jealousy and often in response anti-growth advocates. To add to the temptation, many local Texas ED groups are sitting on rather sizeable pots of money.

In 1989 and in 1991, the Texas Legislature created 4A and 4B sales tax dedicated to local economic development, allowing certain cities the ability to promote a wide range of civic and commercial projects.

The effect was to largely decentralize economic development in Texas. Suddenly, communities could and did build substantial war chests for economic development. It also gave communities, even small rural towns, added horsepower on the awarding of incentives.

(I know a one-person ED shop in Texas with $3 million in the bank.)

Willing and now able to put skin in the game on corporate investment projects, local Texas economic developers started seeing great success.

But in today’s political environment, that success has only placed a bulls-eye upon them.

“It’s part of the everyday narrative now among the economic developers of this state,” said one TEDC attendee. “It usually starts with a council member or a board member questioning what they are doing.”

Having Dodged a Bullet

Mind you, economic developers are not infallible, and elected officials have every right to ask questions and seek answers. But in the process of asking, I would hope they would try to learn from the professionals.

I spoke to one economic developer who found himself facing a newly appointed board “whose goal in life was to get rid of me.”

Fortunately for him, he had allies.

“The good folks in town got responsible people elected and the mayor dismissed my entire board and brought in a new board, and they are all very good people.”

Having dodged the bullet, he looks back on his efforts.

“I spent a whole year trying to educate them and it was like talking to a brick wall. It’s like my city manager says, you can’t fix stupid.”

Educating the Cave People

By the second day of the TEDC conference, I knew I was going to write this blog, and I mentioned it to one economic developer, a long-time friend.

“What happens when the cavemen get elected. That should be your title,” he said. “Because that’s kinda the way it is playing out. It seems like the citizens who are against virtually everything are now getting elected.”

But then he said it is incumbent on economic developers to educate those who are hostile and skeptical or have pre-conceived notions on what economic development is or should be.

“We’ve not done as good a job telling our story and we’ve not done as good a job with accountability. Are we building clawbacks into our agreements? We should be.

“Are we asking for performance data from the companies receiving incentives? We’re working with public dollars, so we should be. And are we modeling this to show a positive return for our community. We should be there, too. … It’s a tough business.”

Economic development is a tough business, particularly at the local  level. And with the prevailing political winds, it’s probably going to get tougher.

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 Dallas.  If you liked what you read here, invite Dean to speak at your next meeting. He can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-767-9518.

Mike’s Paradise

In Corporate Site Selection and Economic Development on October 10, 2015 at 9:42 pm

In life’s journey, we meet people who affect us in ways that we may not fully understand or appreciate until years later.

But sometimes, we chance upon those whom we quickly recognize could have a huge impact on our life. It is usually because of their talent, integrity or resourcefulness.

And it is those people, the influencers, whom we remember forever.

The email came to me on a Sunday night and it was a kick to the gut.

“Dean, my friend, I am terminally ill … and I wanted you to hear this from me before anyone else.”

Two weeks later, my friend, my mentor, Mike McCain, the finest economic developer that I ever knew, but more importantly a kind and decent man, had died.

Mike was the executive director of the Gadsden-Etowah County Industrial Development Authority in Gadsden, Ala. To say that he was good at his job would be an understatement.

We Had Made Our Plans

I’m still having a tough time with this, as this was not the way it was supposed to be. We had made our plans. Let me explain.

It was Sunday night, Sept. 13, when I got Mike’s devastating email.

The next morning, Mike and I were on the phone, and he was his old cheerful self, as if all were well. He told me that he had maybe three or four months to live.

It was cancer, to which he had refused treatment. Mike said that it was too far advanced and the odds were way too stacked against him to put up a fight.

He said he broke the news to his board and community, and continued to work half days in the office. The pain was not bad with medication, and he said he kept his legs elevated in a recliner when he got home.

What Could Be Better?

A man of faith, he told me that he was looking forward to moving on to that other shore, which he called “Paradise.”

“What could be better than that?!,” he asked rhetorically.

He said he had a good life and that he was thankful. And then he thanked me, which left me grasping for words.

Finally, I blurted out, “I really would like to come see you, Mike. But I don’t want to impose.”

I remember him saying that he would welcome seeing “my old pal Dean one last time.” He always called me pal.

Later that afternoon, I emailed him my travel plans. I was to fly into Birmingham on Friday, Oct. 30th, and drive up to Gadsden that afternoon.

“Now if you are too sick to see me, I will understand. I don’t want to do anything that taxes your strength or for that matter intrudes on your privacy,” I wrote.

Mike’s response was classic Mike, as it showed he was foremost thinking of others: “Whoopee!  I get to see Dean again! This is an expensive imposition on you, and a pleasure for me, pal. … I can’t wait!”

Mike died in his recliner at home on the morning of Sept. 28th.

I cannot help but feel that I failed Mike. Mind you, he would never have thought so, but I should have made my way to Alabama immediately upon learning of his illness.

I only learned of his death this past week, four days after his memorial service, which saddens me even more.

Saving a City

The last time I saw Mike was about a year and half ago. I was in his office and he pulled out a newspaper clipping from 1987, two years after he took the job in Gadsden.

It was a story that I wrote about him when I was a business reporter for The Birmingham News. I had completely forgotten about it.

The story centered on what can only be described as Mike’s valiant efforts to save his city. The two largest employers, Goodyear Gadsden, and Gulf States Steel, were on the brink of shutting down, which would have meant the loss of thousands of jobs.

Mike, a veteran economic developer who had previously worked as assistant director of the Alabama Development Office, kept his head about him. He worked tirelessly with both companies, crafting incentive plans that lowered operating costs and kept the doors open.

Gulf States Steel eventually did close in 1999, but by then Gadsden was on a much better footing and could absorb the blow. And that is largely because of Mike’s success at recruiting other companies to his community and development of the Bevill Center at Gadsden State Community College.

I wrote about Gadsden’s response to the crisis and Mike’s leadership in a 2013 blog called Walking the Walk: How Vo-Tech Ed Saved a Town.

The Fit Must Be Right

I transitioned from the newspaper to the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama in 1998.  Mike, more than anyone else, taught me the ins and outs of industrial recruitment and the wants and needs of a company.

He was one of the few economic developers that I know who would actually turn down a project because it would not be the right fit for the company.

He would say something to the effect, “This is a great project, but they need more welders than we in all good conscience can supply. So we’re going to have to pass on this one.”

I did bring him a project that he would hit a home run with. Prince Metal Stamping, a division of The Narmco Group, a Canadian concern, operates a 132,000 square-foot plant and a 247,000 square-foot plant at the airport industrial park in Gadsden.

Teacher, Colleague, Friend

Mike’s success was due to the fact that he knew his community like the back of his hand, and he knew how to craft deals. He seldom traveled for business development, but he was the most effective closer that I have ever met.

In later years as a consultant, I could run ideas, some of which were not so good, by Mike. He would always make the time to give me valuable advice.

He was truly selfless in that regard and made me feel valued and important. In a world where we are all too busy, that is a rarity. So he was a teacher, a colleague, a friend, and a good man. One of my great influencers.

In in our last telephone conversation, I mentioned that we hadn’t spent much time together in recent years.

“But it’s been quality time,” Mike replied. And so it was.

A man is but a man, an outgrowth of his thoughts and actions, for good and bad.

In the tradition of Christianity, we are all flawed creatures, broken by the Original Sin, but through God’s grace are accepted into His Kingdom, this place that some call heaven.

Mike McCain called it Paradise, and I am sure he is there. I just hope that one day that I will get to see my old pal again.

In the meantime, 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 Dallas.  If you liked what you read here, invite him to speak at your next meeting. Dean can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-767-9518.