We do not know with certainty how this story will end. Most towns in rural America do not end so much as linger. Some grow. Some shrink. Some die.
Their skeletons are typically found in remote areas, ghost towns, where hope died and the people left. But I believe where there is hope, there are possibilities – that good things can and do happen if concerted action is taken.
We, a team of consultants, were hired by a small rural western town that was facing the prospect of losing its single largest and very dominant employer. In an earlier blog, I called it “A Small Town with a Company on the Hill.”
We knew what we were getting into – that economic development in rural America is and probably always will be a tough row to hoe.
But the more we learned about the community, the more we realized just how important our work would be for its future. That is not to say that we don’t take all such economic development missions as serious undertakings, but this one was of vital importance because of the potential loss of this large dominant employer.
City Slickers Who Listen
After many conversations with city officials, our thinking morphed from “strategic plan” to what we called a “Target Market Strategy Study.” I realize that these are just labels, but it became clear to us what our client wanted and we responded. But with some provisos, which I will touch on.
In short, our charge was to provide hope and direction, and I believe to a large degree that we did that. And while I was confident in our ultimate findings and recommendations, I was bit apprehensive about what kind of reception we would get during a public meeting of the city council.
We assembled an excellent team for this project. Tim Feemster, principal of Foremost Quality Logistics, served as the project manager and spokesman. The other members were John Hoover and Valerie Battle, of the Modalgistics consulting group within Norfolk-Southern Corporation, and myself.
In comparison to our client, we were big city slickers — John and Valerie from Atlanta, Tim and me from Dallas. And while we frequently work in rural America – both on corporate site search and economic development projects – I felt somewhat self-conscious.
During our presentation at City Hall, I noticed that Tim, John and I were the only people in the room with ties.
Tim spoke for hour, with occasional interjections from John and me. Using a PowerPoint to highlight our 140-page report, he explained how we conducted our many behind-closed-doors, not-for-attribution interviews with stakeholders and came to our SWOT findings.
For the uninitiated, SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. All places, big, small, urban and rural, have them. Even in Heaven there is no beer.
Tim got through the SWOT phase of the presentation, with no jeers or fruit or vegetables being hurled his way from the audience. One city councilman asked a good question, but it was far from hostile. I’m thinking, so far, so good.
Tim then spoke about our freight-flow analysis, which identified and classified physicals products coming in and out of the community, and the demographic profile of the community. Together those elements, in combination with our SWOT, gave us insight in identifying the target industry groups.
Tim explained how and why we got there with our five identified target industry groups. Thankfully, no crank from the audience jumped up and yelled, “How come you don’t say nothing about ostrich farming and chinchilla furs?” to which Tim would have answered, “Well, sir, that would come under agribusiness, which we have listed.”
After explaining the target industry groups, Tim informed the council that we would be providing what we considered a bonus in our report — the descriptive profiles of more than 200 companies, including addresses, telephone numbers and email addresses of senior executives (about 300 names) within those target industry groups.
We thought of this as lagniappe, that 13th donut. It wasn’t asked for, but we thought it would be helpful to their future business attraction efforts once they hired a new economic development director. The previous one left, seeing the writing on the wall with the big dominant employer and following a significant other to another state, while a prospective candidate reneged on taking the job.
Dance with the One
It was at this point in the presentation, repeated in our report, that we gave an important cautionary note. It is a caveat that is often given scant attention by economic development organizations and elected officials, partially because it does not draw headlines.
And it is this: that existing employers typically create far more jobs than by recruiting new companies to any given place.
In short, it means you dance with the one that brung ya. Never, ever forget your existing industry base, for that is the lifeblood of a community. You can and should do business attraction, but keep in mind that there are 15,000 economic development organizations in this country potentially vying for several hundred new corporate site projects every year.
Those are not great odds. It is far more efficient to concentrate on your existing employers, and try to help solve their problems whenever possible. Also, it makes imminent sense to create a favorable environment for entrepreneurial growth and business startups.
Growing your own is the best way to achieve job growth in the vast majority of places nationwide. It is a message that I cannot hammer home enough, despite the fact that I am often involved in business attraction on the corporate side by providing site selection services to companies. My teammates feel the same way.
Do All Three
In our PowerPoint, I gave Tim an image of a three-legged stool, which represents separate strategies for successful local economic development – business retention and expansion (BR&E), entrepreneurial growth, and business attraction.
Our recommendation to any community anywhere: Do all three.
Tim ended the presentation at City Hall with our recommendations on going forward. It was obvious to us that the council members and audience respected our findings and recommendations.
After the meeting outside the council chambers, representatives from the local community college officials said they thought we were too tough on them concerning vocational training. Our response, respectful in tone: We are willing to modify our report if you show us case studies, proof that you have done what you say you can do.
Proof in the Pudding
Earlier in the day, when we were out and about in the community (we arrived in the morning and our presentation was at night), we learned that a metal fabricating company had agreed to buy a vacant manufacturing facility, and would begin production there. It would start off small, with 15 employees, but with the plan to ramp up to 100 or more.
Being the sleuths that we are, we learned this from a source when we stopped at the empty building and went inside. We weren’t invited. We just went there.
Of course, we were very happy for the town, but it also vindicated one of our target industry groups. We said metal fabrication made sense for a variety of reasons and this was proof in the pudding.
Love Conquers All
We also learned that the owner/CEO of the fabricating company was standing in line at Starbucks and started asking people what they thought of their town. The answers he received, essentially sealed the deal for him. They loved their town, and he decided that he would, too.
Naturally we would have preferred that this CEO had hired us to be his site selection consultant, and we could have analyzed multiple communities on a whole host of business factors to arrive at recommendations for an optimal location.
But he did it his way, and his way may very well turn out to be a good way. Until the day comes when artificial intelligence supplants CEOs, COOs and CFOs, there always will be an emotional aspect to decision making because we are human. We feel.
We want the very best for this small town in the West where we did our work. Because we feel for them, we will periodically be checking in with them to see how they are doing. Certainly, we want to help that new economic developer when he or she is hired, because we are now emotionally attached to this small rural town in the West.
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. BBA helps companies and communities. Mr. Barber can be reached at email@example.com or at 972-890-3733. He is available as a keynote speaker.