Dean Barber

Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

Confessions from Red Country

In Economic Development, Places on November 12, 2016 at 12:56 pm

Last week, I sat down with a group of economic developers from different parts of the country. The presidential election of Donald Trump was fresh on their minds and they wondered aloud how the country would fare.

Several confided to me, sometimes rather sheepishly when we were alone, that they had voted for Trump.

They said they didn’t particularly like Trump, indeed found much of what he said during the campaign offensive, but they voted for him because they could not bring themselves to do the same for Hillary Clinton.

“It’s Ok,” I said, as if taking my cue in a confessional. “You’re not a bad person.” (I did not direct anyone to say 10 Hail Marys, take three aspirin and call me in the morning.)

Consultant Connect, a very good organization that brings economic developers and site selection consultants together, had their road show to Dallas last week, which is why I spoke to the assembled economic developers in a panel discussion and then met with them individually.

Pertaining to the election, we now know that Hillary Clinton won almost 90 percent of urban cores, while Trump won between 75 and 90 percent of suburbs, small cities and rural areas.

As I believe our political views are more often than not shaped by where we live and the company that we keep, I couldn’t help but that think most of the economic developers were mirroring the majority in their communities. And they all came from red states.

Memorable Moments

I was sitting in a restaurant in a small town in southwest Virginia in late July. A waitress, a middle aged woman, told me with chin slightly raised that she was for Trump because “he’s one of us.” I looked around the café, and knew immediately that I was the only outsider there.

A few weeks later, I was on the pilot deck of a barge on the Ohio River. The pilot, a native of Kentucky, told me he was voting for Trump because “my family are coal people.” I nodded as if I fully understood, not wanting to get thrown overboard.

A month later, I am out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere near the border of western Nebraska and Colorado, and I see this Trump sign that is the size of a school bus. Somebody was sending a message.

Of course, I knew I was in red country in all these places, and I knew that stark political divisions in our country existed long before this latest president campaign. Some of these schisms date back to the Civil War.

Most noticeable is between New England, where I spent two weeks on vacation last month, and the South, where I have spent most of my life, often in rural settings. This divide is also evident between the coasts and the interior.

Red, Blue and Gray

The divisions are today exemplified by red and blue, whereas in the past, it was the blue and the gray. Back then, they were killing each other with a fury that they would leave such lasting marks that they still remain today.

In William Faulkner’s native Mississippi, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The Mississippi flag is the only U.S. state flag to include the Confederate battle flag’s saltire.

Red America today is overwhelmingly rural America, comprised mostly of white working-class people of limited financial means but not poor. Listening to them, as I have always made a point to do as I, too, grew up in small towns in “flyover country,”it is clear that their anger and bitterness is directed at a Washington that has not listened to their concerns.

And so they chose to ignore Mr. Trump’s transgressions, believing that he would be best suited to go to Washington to figuratively “drain the swamp.” And so they turned out to the polls in droves for him.

The Big Sort

In 2004, journalist Bill Bishop wrote a series of articles showing how Americans have been sorting themselves into alarmingly homogeneous communities — not by region or by state, but by city and even neighborhood. He would later write a book called, “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.”

Bishop’s premise, which I agree with, is that people are choosing where they live, and what news programs they watch, based on their particular beliefs and values. And because they seek out like-minded people, they become more closed to other ways of thinking. In short, they become self- radicalized.

I am trying my best to avoid Facebook these days, where there is a chorus of hysteria coming from many of my friends, most of whom are musicians, who contend that anyone who voted for Trump is a racist or at the very least guilty of aiding and abetting.

Progressive on issues of discrimination against the obvious victims of racism and sexism, they are blind to their own class privilege and intolerant of others who may hold opposing viewpoints.

Mind you, I am very concerned about Mr. Trump’s apparent lack of understanding of the basic underpinnings of our Constitution, such as free expression, racial and religious equality, and limited presidential power.

But I accept that he won an election. My advice: Stay calm and let democracy work. The Republic will survive.

No Clean Hands

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, Calif., writes that neither the left or the right has clean hands when it comes to the deep divisions that have afflicted this country.

Lerner says the right has been all too successful at scapegoating others to explain the pain of working class white people, be they African-Americans, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, liberals, progressives, whoever.

But the left only furthers fans the flames by blaming “white people as a whole for slavery, genocide of the Native Americans and a host of other sins, as though whiteness itself was something about which people ought to be ashamed. The rage many white working-class people feel in response is rooted in the sense that once again, as has happened to them throughout their lives, they are being misunderstood.”

Trump, ever the provocateur, sensationalist, opportunist and marketer, plays to this feeling of alienation, waged a campaign speaking to “the forgotten man and the forgotten women.” And there is a kernel of truth there, even if my liberal friends refuse to recognize it.

“The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear. The racism, sexism and xenophobia used by Mr. Trump to advance his candidacy does not reveal an inherent malice in the majority of Americans,” Lerner wrote.

“If the left could abandon all this shaming, it could rebuild its political base by helping Americans see that much of people’s suffering is rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.”

What Will Trump Do?

As this blog has been and will continue to be a business blog, concerned with affairs of commerce and economic development, I will take a stab at making some predictions about a Trump presidency.

First, I don’t believe this man is an ideologue. (Keep in mind that he was a self-described Democrat until about two years ago.} His convictions are all self-centered, about winning on his terms.

And he will seek out others accomplish that, meaning he will be ever watchful for deal-making opportunities.

Second, this man is a builder, a developer at heart, and build, baby, build is what he knows best and what he wants to do. Forget the wall, that won’t happen, but it is noteworthy that Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, the Senate minority leader, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, two Democrats that he knows, have already sent word to Trump that they are all too willing to work with him in crafting massive and far-reaching infrastructure spending bills.

I can picture Trump and certain key Democrats having late night meetings at the While House. He will offer a carrot — you don’t fight me in repealing and replacing Obamacare (he is already saying the pre-existing conditions will be protected), and I’ll help you with spending on roads, bridges, airports in your district, creating thousands of new construction jobs for years to come.

The key is that Trump will want the credit. It is what he yearns for. If there is to be a fight, it will be with deficit hawks from his own party.

Of course, I’m no insider to the workings of Washington, but it would not surprise me if Trump sets the gears of the federal government into motion, through his willingness to make deals to make things happen. He wants to make big things happen, and again he wants the credit.

With Malice Toward None

As much of his past rhetoric has been hateful and alarming, I can only hope that the weight and responsibility of the office of the presidency will bring a certain reflective calm and soberness to Mr. Trump. Our country, coming off the most bitter presidential campaign that I have ever seen, does not need a divider in chief.

He may want to read the parting words of President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

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. He can be reached at dbarber@barberadvisors.com or at 972-890-3733. Mr. Barber is available as a keynote speaker.

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Beyond the Call of Duty

In Economic Development, Places on January 12, 2014 at 6:29 am

SYLVANIA, Ga. — I submit that there are certain things in life that you can teach and thereby learn, and certain things that you can’t. You either have it or you don’t.

Now let me tell you a true story. It happened to me this past week.

So I was sitting on an airplane at the Charlotte airport, awaiting take off. It was about 5:30 pm on Sunday, Jan. 5, when the pilot announced over the intercom that our U.S. Airways flight to Savannah, Ga., was cancelled due to heavy fog there in Charlotte.

I immediately called Jason Hamman, my partner on an economic development consulting project that was to ultimately take us to Sylvania, the county seat of Screven County in South Georgia. Jason, with Ohio-based Hamman Consulting Group, had also just arrived in Charlotte and was in the same terminal when I reached him.

He said his U.S. Airways flight to Savannah was to leave at 6:30 pm. So I raced to his gate to see if I might be able to get on the same flight. But the airline was none too helpful in providing us with any useful information, until it became clear that Jason’s flight was also cancelled.

So We Decide to Drive

With no hopes of getting to Savannah by air that night (we learned from Jason’s aunt, a travel agent, that all flights were booked solid the next day) and knowing that we had a bunch of scheduled meetings on Monday, we decided to drive the four hours to Savannah and then onto Sylvania, our final destination.

U.S. Airways did make one thing clear. We would be leaving without our luggage. Our bags were somewhere there at the Charlotte airport, but we could not get them. They would be delivered to Savannah, but when they could not say.

Armed with this discouraging information, we called our soon-to-be host, Dorie Bacon, of Screven County Development Authority, to report our travails. Dorie’s board had recently hired us to provide the county with a strategic/action plan as a guide for their future industrial recruitment and this trip was to be our first on-the-ground investigative venture.

When we told Dorie of our intentions of making the drive to Screven County that night, she asked for our sizes. I didn’t give much thought to it, as I was thinking about getting into a rental car as soon as possible.

A Rental Car from Hell

Seeing red meat, Dollar jumped at the opportunity to gouge us to the tune of $317 for making the four-hour drive. When we dropped their car off in Savannah shortly before midnight on Sunday, I was feeling sort of violated by the whole thing.

But it would only get worse. On Thursday, four days later, I received my first automated telephone call from the security department of Dollar telling me that they would report the rental car stolen if I did not return it right away. I immediately called them back to report that they had their car, that it was turned in late Sunday night.

But they must not have believed me, because I kept getting the same threatening automated telephone calls — “to avoid legal action against you” — on Friday and Saturday. And I kept calling them back to repeat that the car had been turned in at the Savannah airport on Sunday night.

But forget them. Truly, I am done with that incompetent bunch. And probably U.S. Airways as well, as we got more useful information from Jason’s aunt on the phone in Ohio than we did from the airline representatives standing in front of us.

But It Got Better

We arrived at Kinchley Place, our bed and breakfast in Sylvania, at about 1:30 am Monday via another rental car. Jason and I were exhausted and feeling a bit deflated from our run of bad luck.

But here is where it got better. There sitting on a table in a large open room off from our respective bedrooms were new clothes – two white shirts, two pair of slacks, packages of t-shirts and underwear, socks, toothbrush and toothpaste and assorted toiletries.

Dorie had come to the rescue. She had provided.

I turned the light off at 2 a.m., not knowing how well I would perform at our initiation meeting at 8 a.m. with the community, but knowing that our host was thinking of us. And that made me feel better.

The next morning, we were introduced to a roomful of maybe 30 people or so, many of them local public officials. Jason and I had to get up and explain ourselves and our mission, which turned out to be easier than expected. I thanked Dorie publicly, saying that she had provided me with my preferred brand of underwear and that I was feeling very good about the whole situation now.

The Point of This Story

What Dorie did for us was both thoughtful and exceptional. It’s not something she learned as an economic developer in an IEDC classroom, but rather it’s something she inherently knew would be the right thing to do. Staring down at the new clothes on the table, all with the correct sizes, Jason and I knew we were dealing with a special person.

We would subsequently get our missing luggage on Monday night. Jason left Screven County on Wednesday afternoon and I left on Friday morning after engaging in more than 20 interviews with a variety of stakeholders.

But before I left, Dorie joined me for breakfast at Kinchley Place, which I can recommend as a fine B&B. (Proprietor Bob Owers, who gave me a useful walking tour of Sylvania’s historic downtown one night, makes a mean breakfast.)

It was there at breakfast Thursday morning that I violated the terms of my agreement. You see these interviews, foundational to a SWOT analysis that is a part of our report, were to be completely confidential. I had no intention of telling Dorie what I had been picking up, but rather incorporate my findings in our report which would follow. But I felt compelled to spill the beans to some degree.

“Dorie, I don’t know what exactly you are doing, but even among people who fundamentally disagree on certain issues regarding the county, they pretty much all agree that you are doing a great job. I just thought you should know that.”

Points on the Board

I suspect it is not a great coincidence that Screven County won its first sizeable industrial project since the 1970s with Dorie Bacon at the helm. She joined the Development Authority in May 2011.

Shrivallabh Pittie Group, an Indian textile manufacturer, announced this past October that it will invest $70 million to build its first U.S.-based manufacturing facility at the Screven County Industrial Park. The plant will employ about 250 people and manufacture cotton yarn. Production should begin by January 2016.

Latasha N. Roberts, executive director of the Screven County Chamber of Commerce, said this soon after the announcement.

“Today belongs to Dorie Bacon, one of the greats and the very definition of a woman on the move.  Her devotion to this county, the many projects she’s fought for on behalf of the Screven County people, the endless site visitations, last minute request for information reports, and the sheer joy she takes in her work have made Tuesday’s announcement meaningful in so many ways.”

Actually, there were two announced wins for Screven County in 2013. Omega Piezo Technologies, Inc. announced in April that it would open a manufacturing plant in a building in Sylvania that many thought should be razed.

But that rehabbed building looks pretty good today and Omega Piezo is going forward with plans to make high quality piezoelectric and alumina products used in alarm systems and medical devices. The plant will create about 20-25 jobs over a two-year period.

“Dorie and the Screven County Development Authority did an outstanding job putting together a great incentive package that was tailored to suit all of our needs,” said Dr. David Pickrell, President of Omega Piezo Technologies, Inc. “They made our decision to come to Screven County an easy one.”

I usually don’t brag on people unless they go above and beyond the call of duty. Dorie did for us and apparently does for others as well. And now it’s our turn to reciprocate and do for Dorie and Screven County.

Postscript

It is Sunday afternoon, Jan. 12, and I just got my third automated telephone call of the day from the security department from Dollar. Stupid is as stupid does.

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.

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

Walking the Walk: How Vo-Tech Ed Saved a Town

In Economic Development, Places on December 15, 2013 at 6:45 am

GADSDEN, Ala. — Not long ago, an industrial “prospect” walked into the Alabama Technology Network Center on the campus at Gadsden State Community College.

This community in northeast Alabama had made the short list of finalist communities for a site search, but the manufacturing executive was still not so sure if his company’s workforce needs could be met here.

Upon entering the building, he immediately saw students programming robots through large windows at the first room to his right, “Hmmm, now that’s interesting,” he said.

At the very next room, still in the entrance foyer, the industry exec peered into another window to see a process control lab. He did a double take and walked inside. “These are the very same process controls that we use in our plants,” he said.

Bingo.

“All of a sudden, he wasn’t concerned any more as to our ability to meet his workforce needs,” said Mike McCain, executive director of the Gadsden-Etowah County Industrial Development Authority.

And this all took place just moments before the industry exec was to go into a meeting with local educators who had wanted to prove to him that the human resources were hand. At that point, he had all the proof he needed.

A Pipeline to Success

I do like the rather old-fashioned phrase of “human resources.” Some people may find the term a bit sterile, but I think it is aptly descriptive. And that is because people are a great resource for just about any business enterprise in any industry, especially so in today’s globalized, competitive environment.

In short, people can be your ace. In terms of site selection and/or location analysis, my primary consulting service to corporate clients, I not only look for an existing talent base – people who are more than capable of doing the work — but also a pipeline for future talent to sustain business operations.

I witnessed that future pipeline at work just across town from Gadsden State at the Etowah County Career Technical Center. There, more than 400 high school students from the county school system are enrolled to learn practical, technical, and useful skills  for when they are in the job market.

“My job is to provide opportunities,” said Mark Stancil, director of the center.

These Kids Are BEST

And let me tell you, I saw a motivated bunch of very bright kids, which gave me hope as to the future of our country.

In one classroom, I met a group of boys and girls who had built a six-axis robot in 42 days so that they could compete in a national competition. It was their first stab at entering the contest, sponsored by BEST Robotics Inc., a nonprofit organization with a mission of exciting students about engineering, science and technology.

Each fall, more than 850 middle and high schools and more than 18,000 students participate in the BEST competition. On a hallway wall facing the robotics classroom door is the proof in the pudding – eight plaques proclaiming “Best Rookie Team,” “First Place, Most Robust Robot,” “First Place, Team Exhibit, Design, and Construction Award,” “Second Place, Most Elegant Robot,” and on and on.

Inside the electronics technology classroom, I met equally motivated teachers and volunteers, industry people who wanted to give their time to these young people to show them the way.

Elbert Engle, the retired president of XYZ Control Inc., a company that specializes in automotive assembly design, spends much of his time at the center as a volunteer mentoring the students on technology.

“I love working with these young people,” he said. “We just hired a young draftsmen out of here and he has been with us for three or four weeks now and he’s about as good as anybody I have ever had.”

You’re Asking Them to What?

Apparently, they start them young here. Gadsden City Schools’ System has an Enrichment Program in which it holds a yearly “Invention Convention” in which it challenges, get this, third, fourth and fifth graders to invent and build some new device and then apply for a patent for their creations. Yes, you read that right.

Their work is then subsequently judged by members of The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County.  This coming spring will be the third year of the program, said Chamber President Heather New.

I don’t know about you, but when I was that age, about the only thing I could create, certainly no novel invention, was a somewhat effective spit-ball blowgun. Mind you, it was strictly used in self-defense.

Walking the Walk

But back to Gadsden and Etowah County. What I found most heartening here was just how closely the city and county school systems were working in close harmony with Gadsden State in being responsive to private sector employers. Both systems have private sector advisory boards comprised of local employers.

Most places talk the talk about such matters. But here I was seeing real evidence that they were walking the walk.

Gadsden, with its long tradition of precision metals manufacturing, has a history of pushing the envelope (and its students in the process) on how to better meet industry needs.

The city school system recently initiated a program that will allow certain high school students to take college-level engineering courses at Gadsden State. The dual-enrollment permits select high school students to take an introductory engineering course and a computer-assisted drafting course.

“It really sets those students up well to migrate easily into a lot of technical programs over there at Gadsden State as well as if they decide to go to a four year institution,” said David Asbury, director of technology with the city school system.

He Gets It

I had the pleasure of having lunch at Gadsden State with President William Blow; Tim Green, Dean of Technical Programs; and Gregg Bennett, director of the Alabama Technology Network Center on the GSCC campus.

I met them in the same room at ATN where our aforementioned manufacturing executive was supposed to get his convincing lesson. Also, by the time I met with these gentlemen, I didn’t need a whole lot of convincing by what I had seen already.

“There is an unusual level of cooperation between the city and the county and the college, which make the work here not so hard to do” said Dr. Blow.

“We profess to be a community college as we want to connect and be a part of the community. I think it is safe to say that we are as comprehensive in our offerings in tech ed as any community college in Alabama.

“We want to do everything we can to promote economic development in our community. … I never like to promise more than we can deliver because you have to live with that, but I can promise this – we can deliver a whole lot. If an industry tells us what it needs, we will do our dead level best to deliver. ”

Ladies and gentlemen, this is music to my ears — an academician who gets it.

The Origins and the Challenge

I was in Gadsden last week to consult with the Etowah County Commission regarding my site certification work. But I had been there many times before. When I first visited Gadsden in the late 1980s, I was a business reporter for The Birmingham News, and two of the city’s biggest employers – Goodyear and Gulf States Steel – were making noise of closing. Gadsden was at the brink.

Today, Goodyear remains and is expanding while Gulf States is gone. But the community, which could have gone in a very bad direction, is doing very well in terms of its manufacturing base. Many companies have come here since those dark days.

I believe the primary reason for Gadsden being “saved” was the development of what was called the Bevill Center for Advanced Manufacturing, subsequently to become the ATN center.

The genesis of that was in 1984 when then GSCC President Robert Howard came up with the idea of starting a center that would staffed by industrial technologists with factory experience as well as strong academic credentials.

The mission would be to provide applied engineering assistance and training in advanced manufacturing technologies to local existing industries and facilitate in the attraction of new industries. Howard’s concept was that this needed to be a joint venture between Gadsden State Community College, the city of Gadsden, and the University of Alabama.

Mike McCain was the assistant director and chief of staff at the Alabama Development Office in 1984. And the mayor of Gadsden sent him a copy of the proposal and asked, “What do you think about this?”

“I spent all night long reading it and said, ‘You got to do this. This is going to save Gadsden,’” said McCain.

The very next year, 1985, McCain would be recruited to Gadsden to start the Gadsden-Etowah Industrial Development Authority.

The Bevill Center at GCSS would start operations in 1987 and would subsequently become one of five centers in Alabama with the inauguration of a Centers of Technical Excellence program in 1993.

Its namesake, the late Tom Bevill, a Democratic 15-term U.S. congressman from Alabama, told the Gadsden Times this at the time:

“We’re not gambling here, we know it works, we know it can be done.”

And so it was, to the benefit of students and industry alike. And it’s clear that this legacy of vocational education and technical training remains in force today in this community where manufacturing remains king.

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.

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

There Must be Something in the Water

In Places on November 10, 2013 at 6:45 am

MERIDIAN, Miss. – Now you can argue with some justification that all places have their own signature, their own ways of being. And as a site selection/economic development consultant, I have come to appreciate this.

But I am hard-pressed to tell you of another place like Mississippi. Sure, the states that border it do have certain similarities, but Mississippi is distinct. Here I am constantly reminded of what once was and what could be.  As someone who values history and believes that we can learn from it, I like that. I like that a lot.

I do no justice to the people of Mississippi in trying to neatly summarize their history as it cannot be done in this short space. But I think it is fundamental to know that the vast majority of Mississippians, both black and white, suffered from societal and government controls that were slapped onto them.

The black experience in Mississippi derived from just horrible circumstances. African Americans endured a brutal system of slavery that denied them even the most basic human rights. Slaves were robbed of any dignity by not even being granted personhood. In the eyes of the law, they were property, pure and simple. Things hardly got better under Jim Crow.

Ironically, most white Mississippians also lived a life of hardscrabble and saw no benefit from black oppression. These white yeoman farmers were duped into believing that keeping blacks “in their place” somehow ensured their own welfare if not superiority.

Those doing the duping, the elites who controlled both commerce and politics, were largely the planter class. It was all too important for them for this system of control, of both blacks and poor whites, to remain in place as it was quite profitable.

From the Civil War of the 1860s to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the conflict was whether this perverse system of control, fortified by laws and regulations, could be maintained. Many blacks and some poor whites said essentially “screw this” and left, migrating to northern cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago, to find work in factories.

Through it all, maybe because of it all, an unimaginable explosion of writers and musicians emerged in Mississippi. The writers included William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, John Grisham, Margaret Walker Alexander; Eudora Welty and Shelby Foote to name just a few.

As Mississippi is the home of the blues, seminal musicians emerged, such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Bessie Smith, Willie Dixon, Mississippi John Hurt, and Charlie Patton. They were followed by subsequent generations of Mississippian musicians whose ranks included Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Jimmy Buffett and Faith Hill. And then there was the singing brakeman, Jimmy Rodgers. More on him later.

Looking at all this literary and musical talent, you have to wonder if there is something in the water that brings it out.

Their voices all speak of an intertwined fabric of Mississippi – hardship and hope, despair and redemption. And the past was ever present in their songs and stories.  William Faulkner said it best in Requiem for a Nun, set in the mythical Yoknapatawpha County.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

A $44 million Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center is planned for in Meridian. I saw the spot for the 58,500-square-foot venue during our bus tour. You can bet I’ll be coming back when it opens in 2017. I hope to be back before then.

The Flying Keys

Soon after arriving in Meridian on Wednesday, I boarded a bus with other site selection consultants and was taken to the local airport, called Key Field, where I learned, surprise, surprise that there was a 140-acre industrial site available for aviation purposes.

More memorable was learning about two brothers from which the airport was named. Fred and Al Key lifted off from the Meridian airport in a borrowed airplane on June 4, 1935. For the next 27 days, they flew around Meridian without ever landing, as food and fuel were supplied via a long flexible tube from another attending aircraft.

The non-stop endurance flight of the “Flying Keys” lasted 653 hours, 34 minutes. Their borrowed airplane, named Ole Miss, is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

I also watched a video that made the case for Meridian being a logical place for an aviation MRO (maintenance repair operation), but my mind kept wandering back to those crazy Key brothers and how they made history.

Our Brand is Our Music

Later that night, I found myself on the stage of what was once Meridian’s Grand Opera House, circa 1890s. It was closed in 1927, and essentially mothballed and boarded up for decades, until someone got the bright idea to look inside. What they found was astonishing, an 1890s opera house that was pretty much intact.

Today, following a $25 million restoration, this grand old dame has been renamed the MSU Riley Center. It is a jaw-opening beauty with extravagant interior and great acoustics.

As part of our itinerary, I ate dinner on that stage with other consultants and economic developers that included representatives of the Mississippi Development Authority and Mississippi Power. (A special thanks to Alisha Frazier with Mississippi Power for her planning and cat-herding abilities.) As I was in utter awe of the historic theater, I really don’t remember much of what was said.

But I do remember Wade Jones, the president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation, later to be referred to as “Suede” because of his coolness, saying a rather curious thing: “Our brand is our music. It brings our people together.”

I pondered his statement, all the while listening to a duo playing jazz guitar and clarinet. The next day, on Thursday, Jones’ comments would make even more sense, as I got to see Jimmy Rodgers reincarnate.

Getting Down to Business

Wade opened our breakfast meeting with the obligatory PowerPoint presentation about Meridian. I learned that within a 65-mile radius of Meridian, there was a workforce of over a half million people. I learned there were nearly 1,000 doctors in the region and some 6,000 health-care workers.

I got the scoop on major employers, Meridian Community College, and Meridian’s three industrial parks, all within close proximity to Interstates 59/20. I also learned about the 1,500-acre mega-site which was dual rail served.

Later that morning, I stretched my legs inside a virtually new and vacant 463,000-square-foot distribution center that was operated for only about a year before its owner went bust. The building, with 32-foot ceilings and more than 40 dock doors, sat within almost spitting distance of I-59/20 and can be had for about 50 cents on the dollar. I would be surprised if it is still available a year from now.

More revealing was touring a plant operated by Tower Automotive, a Tier One supplier to Nissan but now extending its product line of stamped parts to other companies as a Tier Two and Tier Three supplier. The plant manager explained how the manufacturing process worked in the plant, which entailed about 140 workers working around and with 67 robots.

An obviously knowledgeable operations guy who has worked in automotive plants in Ohio and at the Ford assembly plant in Kansas City, I asked him how the workers in Meridian compared to their counterparts in the Midwest. He said the workforce in Meridian was “good and conscientious” but that they balked at the idea of working overtime, which he found curious.

He also said the skill sets required for certain highly skilled technical jobs, such as robotic programming and maintenance, were sorely lacking. Still, he was upbeat about the workers in his plant and referred to many of them by their first name.

Pie, SCAR, and Jimmie

Several experiences would follow later in the day that I will forever remember – eating the “world famous black-bottom pie” at lunch at Weidmann’s Restaurant, seeing and hearing Jimmie Rodgers come back to life, and offing a zombie with a Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) in full automatic mode. Well, the zombie was actually a paper target inside an indoor range, but it was all still very cool.

While at Weidmann’s, the oldest operating restaurant in the state since 1870, I had the pleasure to listen to Britt Gully sing those old and wonderful Jimmie Rodgers songs. I can only describe Britt as the real deal, a throwback to a bygone era when music was music. He recorded his CD “Jimmie Rodgers’ Guitar” at the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian. (Jimmie’s original 1928 000-45 Martin guitar sits inside a climate-controlled vault with a glass door. It is valued at $3 million.)

Britt was accompanied by Amy Lott, another great local talent. She was the clarinet player at the Riley Center the night before. We would see her again later that night playing keyboard with a band during a catered dinner held at an old steam plant. But back to Jimmie Rodgers, whom I simply idolize.

Rodgers was a giant in 20th century music. He died on May 26, 1933 of tuberculosis two days after his final recording session in New York City. When the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was established in 1961, Rodgers was one of the first three inductees. He is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. He was only 35 years old when he died.

Fact is always stranger than fiction. In the village of Kapkatet, Kenya in the early 1950′s, members of the Kipsigi tribe somehow got hold of some 78 records of Jimmie Rodgers. Convinced that such strange sounds could not come from a mere human, they attributed the voice to a half-man half-antelope spirit they called Chemirocha.

During fertility rites, young Kipsigi maidens would dance seductively to the Jimmie Rodgers records, begging him to join them in dance in hopes that Chemirocha would get nekkid (a southern euphemism for naked) with them.

I think Rodgers would have gotten a big kick out of being worshiped as a demigod. I know I would.

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.

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

Work Triumphs Here

In Places on November 3, 2013 at 6:05 am

JOPLIN, Mo. – The good food and good conversation at the dinner revived me, but I was still glad to get back in my hotel room.

It had been a grueling 14-hour day in which I traveled nearly 300 miles and met with economic developers, mayors, city councilmen and county commissioners at small towns along the way in adjoining counties in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Regional Economic Development Alliance, had promised a “magical mystery tour.” Back in the sanctuary of the Homewood Suites on Monday night, it felt more like “let’s kick Dean’s butt tour.” But, hey, I asked for it. I wanted to see before I spoke.

I had the World Series on the big screen TV and a PowerPoint on the small screen of my laptop. My mission was to tweak my presentation, based on all the things that I had seen and heard earlier in the day. The next morning, I was to speak to regional stakeholders in Pittsburg, Kan.; followed by Miami, Okla., at lunch; and then Carthage, Mo., in late afternoon.

But my thoughts were not flowing. I was tuckered out.

Fiddling with My PowerPoint

While keeping an eye on the game, I nonetheless fiddled with my PowerPoint, which I had endowed with the cumbersome title of “A Consultant’s View: How I Do My Job and How Communities Can Compete for Corporate Investment.” Most of the changes that I made were not substantive, and I went to bed about midnight with a gnawing feeling of incompletion.

But then, I awoke at 5 a.m. with the realization that I had to add two more slides.

Newly created Slide No. 25 said, “People Choose Places for All Kinds of Reasons.” It showed a photograph that I had taken on Sunday afternoon, soon after arriving in Joplin, of a stone garage apartment. Next to my photograph was a black and white photo of a young smiling couple, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

From April 1 to April 13, 1933, the garage apartment served as their tranquil hideout. But local law enforcement but somehow got wind  of their presence and came knocking. The result was two dead officers and Bonnie and Clyde making their escape.

No doubt, the outlaw duo thought their apartment was a safe harbor. There is something to be said for safety in site selection, as risk management always at the forefront.

Newly created Slide No. 26 was entitled “People Make the Difference.” It featured another photograph that I took on Sunday of a new plant under construction.

Next to the picture, I placed a telling quote: “There was no whining after the tornado. It was get off your ass and get back to work. We respect that. You are the kind of people we want to work with.” – Bill Bishop.

Bill Bishop is founder and chairman of the Blue Buffalo Company, which is now building an $85 million plant in Joplin that will manufacture dog food. The facility will eventually employ 150 people.

That Fateful Day

Bishop was referring to a catastrophic day in Joplin’s history, when an F5 multiple-vortex tornado descended on the city. It was late in the afternoon on Sunday, May 22, 2011.

Many if not most tornadoes are bad, but this one was a particular monster. It left a path of devastation virtually obliterated entire neighborhoods. More than 7,000 homes were destroyed, along with a score of churches and schools.

You can can still see evidence of that terrible, fateful day.  A large vacant tract is all that remains of where St. John’s Regional Medical Center (now known as Mercy) once stood. (It is being now rebuilt in a different part of town.)

A hillside bears a cross as a testament to where a church once stood. There are parking lots where there are no attending buildings. And you see these open spaces where it’s not hard to imagine that homes once stood.

From the standpoint of the people of Joplin, it was miraculous that “only” 161 people died and not thousands due to the scope of the destruction.

From Tragedy Springs Hope and Change

We yearn for a better path. I saw it recently in New Orleans and now I was bearing witness to it here in Joplin – that tragedy somehow bears fruit. That with death and destruction comes a new start.

Maybe a disaster serves as a slap in the face to the realization of the frailty and vulnerability of life. An educator at the Monday night dinner said the storm opened eyes as to the possibilities of what could be and that there was no time to waste. And now Joplin is now rebuilding with that in mind.

Both in Joplin and New Orleans, which succumbed to Hurricane Katrina, there is this underlying belief, cautiously stated, that the storms provided a launch pad for something greater to be achieved, for past ills to be fixed. Another educator at dinner likened the tornado to a forest fire that cleared the underbrush.

That’s not how I would put it, but I think I understood what she was saying. We have only a finite time on this earth, so let us get past the clutter and go about making a positive change. From tragedy springs hope and change.

But I am convinced that if this same hell would have rained down on any one of the neighboring towns that I visited in Missouri, Kansas or Oklahoma, the same spirit of “let’s go to work” and build anew would have manifested itself. There is resilience in the people here. They lean forward.

So it is not surprising to me that Jasper County, where most of Joplin sits, became the very first ACT Certified Work Ready Community in the nation. No complacency here.

By the way, my friend David Dodd, principal of New Orleans-based DADCO Consulting, specializes in economic development disaster recovery. Should a terrible event befall your community, he can help.

Join or Die

City lines, county lines, even state lines make little difference in the larger picture of what a particular place truly has to offer. Hence, my message was there is a power to regionalism that should never be overlooked.

In a site selection project, I can most assuredly tell you that assets are viewed not by solely what is in your backyard, but also that of your neighbor’s. We are looking for all sorts of things, much of which will be of a regional nature – things like an airport, an interstate highway, a community college, a hospital and the like.

In that sense, you are your neighbor’s keeper, and it is pleasing for me to see more economic developers recognizing this fact. If they cannot win the project, they know that it being in the next county will result in a bleed-over effect, with resulting jobs and commerce happening in their community.

I was pleased my evangelistic message of regionalism – which featured a slide depicting a Revolutionary War image of snake cut up into multiple parts and proclaiming “Join or Die” — was generally well received. Not a single roll was hurled in my direction.

The Joplin Globe wrote a story about it. The local television station, KOAM, also broadcast a report. Both were in Miami, Okla., when I gave my spiel.

Brilliance Born of Necessity

I happen to believe that the rural tradition of this seven-county region represented by the JREDP provides for a foundational strength in manufacturing.

The people in southwest Missouri, northeast Oklahoma and southeast Kansas value public education, and take a certain pride in their high schools, community colleges and universities. (I was particularly impressed Pittsburg State University’s Department of Engineering Technology, which is turning out a pipeline of talent.)

But they also come from a farming stock and a long tradition of tinkering, fixing things and devising solutions to problems because help may not be so close by. Brilliance born of necessity is evident in a farm culture that must make do with what one has.

Manufacturing as a percentage of the workforce is twice the national average here. Bill Bishop got it right. This is a place of work and not whining, of motivation and not resting on one’s laurels.

During my whirlwind tour of the region, Kevin Welch kept me entertained with songs on his classic rock mp3 player. “There hasn’t been a good song made since 1990,” he opined. And he took me to some interesting places along the way.

One foggy morning, I photographed the modest home where Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Mo. The next day, my new bud would take a picture of me standing in front of the even more modest structure in Commerce, Okla. The house, which badly needed a coat of paint and with a front porch showing signs of rot, was the boyhood home of Mickey Mantle.

Finding the Gorilla

But probably the most memorable place from the standpoint of just plain weirdness was Picher, Okla.

Once a town of more than 14,000 people back in 1926, it is now a ghost town, emptied when the EPA found it to be uninhabitable and life-threatening. Indeed, a 1996 study revealed that 34 percent of the children in Picher suffered from some degree of lead poisoning. On top of that, 86 percent of the buildings were subject to collapse because of underground lead and zinc mines.

Throughout much of the region, you will see these mounds called chat piles. They are gravel waste piles that came from separating the rock from the lead and zinc ore in the mining operations Trust me, you do not want to put your tongue on one of these things.

I was photographing the mountainous chat piles, the deserted homes and empty streets of Picher when we came upon this large black gorilla, actually a statue of the mascot for a high school that no longer exists. He was on a pedestal that proclaimed some state championship back in 1984.

I think somebody needs to go fetch that gorilla, because he cannot be happy there alone on his pedestal in a town that is forever gone. Let’s give this big fella a proper home. He deserves as much.

By Hook or Crook

I submit that every place has its own Picher. It may not be the environmental bombshell that this town came to be, but every town, city and region has challenges and low points.

As a location investigator, I will find them by hook or crook if I am hired to do so. So you might as well just show or tell me, as Kevin did, and get it over with.  In a far different role, I can also serve as a consultant for an economic development entity and tell a community how to make certain problems less problematic.

I have yet to tell a town to empty itself and cease operations. Rather, I have offered ideas on how to ameliorate risk and thereby improve a local business climate.

“Ameliorate. You got to be kidding. Nobody talks like that around here,” said Kevin after we got into his SUV following one of my presentations. We were headed to our next gig in the next town.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t have used that word,” I said. “But your people do seem to know how to git r done. Can I say that? Can I say git r done?”

It wasn’t too long before we got to that next town. Along the way, I marveled at the scenic pastoral beauty of the rolling countryside scattered about with bright splotches of color. Fall had arrived, and I was having fun. But I was still thinking about that gorilla.

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.

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

The China of the West: Why Mexico is in the Driver’s Seat

In Manufacturing, Places on October 27, 2013 at 7:04 am

As a consultant, my business is solving other people’s problems, so when the call comes in, I listen.

Sometimes I immediately know if I can help. Sometimes I immediately know that I can’t. And sometimes I have to ponder on it for awhile.

So I got this call this past week from a company that wants to expand into Mexico. For reasons of confidentiality, a sacred oath in corporate site selection, I cannot say more.

But as some of my past blogs have indicated, I have a great interest in Mexico, and not only because I live in neighboring Texas, where I am exposed (and attracted to) a strong Hispanic culture. Here I frequent Tex-Mex restaurants, where I will invariably practice my rudimentary Spanish, usually to the embarrassment of my wife.

(There was a time when I could ask for a beer and the restroom in seven different languages. I think I’m now down to four.)

Winning as a Habit

But aside from my miserable attempts at speaking pigeon Spanish, I continue to find Mexico an intriguing place for corporate investment. The reason is quite simple — it continues to win. And that becomes habit forming.

Coincidentally this past week, I added a tagline to my email signature, which reinforces that point. It comes from Aristotle, a pretty smart fellow even if he did prescribe goat urine as a cure for baldness.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act – but a habit.”

Bear Bryant summed it up similarly: “When you get in the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.”

Well, Mexico has been getting into the end zone a lot lately, and, and could very well be among the world’s 10 biggest economies by the end of this decade as its manufacturing sector is competing very well against the likes of China, India and Brazil. Heck, it’s competing very well against the automotive industry in the southeastern U.S., which should raise some concerns there.

Billions in the Pipeline

Earlier this month, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said his company will invest $1.249 billion in two Saltillo facilities creating 1,570 jobs.  About $1.085 billion will go toward the construction of a new assembly plant to produce the Ram ProMaster commercial vehicle. An additional $164 million will be invested in a new production line to assemble Tigershark engines at an existing engine plant.

Nissan, which built 683, 520 cars in Mexico last year making it the largest vehicle manufacturer in the country, will open its third plant next month, the $2-billion Aguascalientes No.2. The new factory will turn out an additional 250,000 vehicles.

The No. 2 automaker in the country, General Motors, said in June it would invest $691 million to expand its Mexican operations. The plans include a new factory in Silao in central Mexico to build 8-speed transmissions and an upgrade to an existing factory in San Luis Potosi that will make next-generation transmissions.

Watch for BMW, Hyundai, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz to announce at least $2 billion of deals in the next year or two, in addition to $6 billion in announced plants by Nissan, Honda, Mazda and Volkswagen.

The China of the West

Joseph Langley, a senior analyst with the Michigan-based research firm IHS Automotive, told Reuters that Mexico is fast becoming “the China of the West.” By 2020, Mexico will have the capacity to build one in every four vehicles in North America, up from one in six in 2012, according to IHS.

Last year, Mexico attracted $3.7 billion in announced automotive investments, matching the U.S. total, according to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Since 2000, overall auto industry employment in North America has fallen from 2 million to 1.5 million — partly because of robotics and automation. The march of technology, creating greater productivity, is an overriding reason why our manufacturing sector in the U.S. will not grow by millions of jobs, despite what some so-called experts continue to say. Don’t get me started on that.

But Mexico has actually been adding automotive jobs. And now about 40 percent of all auto industry jobs on the continent are in this nation of 115 million, the second largest economy in Latin America.

Being on the doorstep of the U.S., where most of the product will go, certainly provides for a key advantage, as does lower wages, a strong supply base and a global web of free-trade agreements that actually surpass that of the U.S.

Free Trade Agreements Helped

Indeed, it was Mexico’s free trade agreements that were central to Audi choosing it over certain Southeastern states for a new $1.3 billion assembly plant that will produce 150,000 Q5 sport-utility vehicles a year starting in 2016.

Mexico has 12 free trade agreements with 44 countries, while U.S. has 14 trade deals covering only 20 countries. For the European Union, it means a 10 percent tariff on U.S.-built vehicles, which would cost Audi more than $3,000 per Q5. Europe does not apply a tariff on Mexico-built vehicles.

Audi’s choice of Mexico should have been a wakeup call. Suddenly, the South’s dominant position in offering the auto industry lower wages, less of a tax bite and a more favorable (less-active) union environment, is no longer the slam dunk it once was.

Mexico has proved itself to be an attractive alternative in North America. And at around $2.50 an hour, manufacturing wages in Mexico are about 20 percent cheaper than in China, according to a Bank of America study.

Rumors of More

So it is no surprise of reports, you can rightly call them rumors at this point, that BMW, which operates an assembly plant in upstate South Carolina, and Hyundai, which produces vehicles in Alabama, are snooping around Mexico looking for their next assembly plant. I believe the same could be true for Toyota. (Of course, if these companies were really smart, they would hire Barber Business Advisors to help them find that most optimal location in Mexico.)

Just two days before Audi held its groundbreaking ceremony on May 4 at San Jose Chiapa, Honda announced that it would build a $470 million transmission plant in the central state of Guanajuato, near an $800 million assembly plant that is expected to begin production this coming February.

This automotive building spree in Mexico is not by accident. Things happen for a reason. Mexico is the low-cost place for manufacturing, and because of its close proximity to the U.S., the cost of shipping product will always be far far less than what China, or India or Brazil could ever offer.

Mexico is back in the game. It has long-standing governance problems to be sure. The drug cartel violence is not something to be ignored, but foreign-based manufacturers believe it to be an issued that can handled and mitigated, no doubt with some additional security costs involved.

But Mexico has proved to be a worthy bet. And you are going to see more growth as result.

Have Laptop, Will Travel

It should come as no surprise that I travel on behalf of business clients — be that a company in regard to a site search project or an economic development organization that needs my help. In other words, somebody is paying the freight for what is by definition business travel.

So I find it somewhat odd when I am invited by economic developers to come visit their respective communities but with no representation or afterthought of compensation.

At such times, there is often a certain awkwardness that I feel in suggesting that compensation would be involved. But the truth is that this consulting business of mine really is a business. And lending time and expertise is the basis for that business. You would think that would be obvious, but apparently it is not.

So unless I am on vacation, to which you would never see me, business dictates my travel. That’s just the way it is, the way it has to be if this enterprise is to remain a viable concern.

So if a company is not paying me to be at a particular place at a particular time in regard to a site search, then the only other scenario is that a community has contracted for my services. It maybe something of a more in-depth nature — a SWOT analysis or site certification – or it could be something more short term, such as giving a speech/presentation to stakeholders.

Providing that Outside Voice

It has been my experience that economic developers often do need an outside voice to say what they have essentially been saying, but to which has been largely ignored. There is a strange psychology at work here, a variation of familiarity breeds contempt. Even Jesus referenced the difficulty of being viewed as a prophet from one’s own village.

So I will come to a community armed with a briefcase and laptop and give talks/presentations on how the site selection process works and how communities can go about to better compete for corporate investment. Through it all, there is a single strand to my message – You got to invest in yourself if you are to expect someone else to invest in you.

I will be going to Joplin, Mo., this coming week to tour the region and pass along that message (and more) on behalf of the local economic development organization there. I will tell my audiences (I’ll be speaking to three different stakeholders groups in three different communities) the truth — that the recruitment of industry is always a tough nut to crack, but especially so in this new digital machine age that requires fewer but higher-skilled people.  Business retention and expansion is usually the best bet for job growth in most communities.

So let us hope that my message takes in the Show Me State. No doubt, many of my audience members will be astute business people and will get it. If for some unforeseen reason, however, my presentations are met with glassy-eyed stares, perplexed looks or outright rebellion, then I will probably not report that you. It hasn’t happened yet, but there is always a first time.

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.

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

A Story of Redemption

In Places on September 29, 2013 at 8:07 am

NEW ORLEANS – Let the record show that I am noticing. I have actually been noticing for some time now. It would appear that this city is not just back, but it’s better.

Now I’m not just hearing this from economic developers who will sell you a pig in a poke if you let them. No, longtime residents tell me that things are looking up, that the city is changing. Previously I had known New Orleans as an interesting if not largely broken place headed in some very ugly directions. That is no longer the case.

That is not to say that serious deep-rooted problems do not remain. Crime and poverty remains a pox here. Establishing quality public education is still not a top priority for some. And entrepreneurship and diversity is still viewed with antipathy or even suspicion by some old money. But those attitudes are breaking down. People do die.

I am here for a “fam” tour, which I welcome, as it gives me an opportunity to learn about a place. Because of the time constraints of my consulting business, I do not nor cannot accept all such invitations. I will certainly not consider a fam tour in which the inviting community is not covering my travel expenses. I got one of those invitations this past week.

But if my schedule permits, I go to places where a) a corporate client may want to go and b) there is a heightened degree of business activity and c) a community needs help and will pay for my consulting services on how to better compete for private investment.

I arrived in New Orleans a day early so as to knock about on my own, and get a feel for the place.

An Old Haunt

I have been to this city a number of times over the course of many years – the first time as a young hitchhiking vagabond back in 1974. I know I must have worried  my parents half to death back then with my youthful antics. I have only vague memories now, but they include a place called Cooter Brown’s, which served a wonderful cheap breakfast.

As a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I would knee wobble with friends in the French Quarter into the wee hours only to discover that some of those pretty girls that we were buying drinks for weren’t who we thought they were. Enough on that. Jaegermeister is an evil concoction designed for personal destruction.

Years later, I now look at New Orleans through a much different lens, not so much as Partytown USA, a Gulf Coast version of Vegas, but a place where serious business investment can and does take place. According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Greater New Orleans had the ninth fastest GDP growth in the nation in 2012.

Being a port city certainly doesn’t hurt. Occasionally, even magazine editors can get it right. My friend Jack Rogers with Business Facilities magazine did when he wrote this: “With its proximity to the center of the U.S. via a 14,500-mile inland waterway system, six Class One railroads and a nexus of interstate highways, New Orleans is the port of choice for the movement of everything from steel, rubber and manufactured goods to commodities like coffee.”

Back from the Abyss

New Orleans has been a port city ever since the Spanish and French waved flags here. The presence of a resurgent oil and gas industry also provides for a degree of wealth and stability. But something else is out there that that has changed the environment and even the outlook of the city.

I am not going to be so heartless as to say that Hurricane Katrina eight years ago was a good thing for “Nawlins.” Lives were lost. (About 1,800.) People’s personal finances were devastated and many forever lost their homes and left never to return. But I will suggest that Katrina, a near death experience for this city, has served as a rallying point for one of the greatest turnaround stories in American history.

Americans love comeback stories as it reaffirms hope and what can be. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 did not stop Chicago. It bounced back. So, too, did New York City when it faced an almost financial meltdown in 1975, but somehow avoided bankruptcy. The cocaine cowboys were shooting up Miami in the late 70s and early 80s, making it a literal war zone between rival drug gangs, but law enforcement eventually regained control.

These cities pulled themselves back from the abyss, which I believe can only happen when local government and the business community band together to fight for positive change. That public-private partnership is key. It certainly happened here.

Winning with Technology

Prior to Katrina’s landfall in 2005, the economy of New Orleans relied heavily on being a port city. Tourism and government were the other major sectors of an economy in decline and the business community was not taking the leadership role that it should have. But that has changed.

Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution identified New Orleans as having the best economy among 100 large metropolitan areas. And while I do not necessarily put a lot of stock in the thinking of muddled editors (I can speak from experience on this), it may be worth noting that the Wall Street Journal named New Orleans the No.1 most improved metro in the country. Bloomberg called it the No. 2 “boomtown” in America, and Forbes ranked it third in terms of winning technology jobs.

But as much as this comeback story is inspiring and deserves further scrutiny (which is why I am here), it is not an absolute given that economic growth is sustainable for the long term. So says my host, Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc. I thought it quite revealing and candid when he wrote this:

“Our gains are real, but they are fragile. And as tens of billions of Katrina funding wind down, the rest of the country is reviving from the great recession. The ‘new’ Greater New Orleans is about to enter the ‘new’ normal.

“So for all the challenges of the past few years, the coming may hold even more. Competing on a level playing field now will be our opportunity to prove to the rest of the world that the Louisiana Renaissance is real, and that the post-Katrina resurgence was not a swan song, but the prelude to a story of redemption.”

Heck, Hecht can write. How can you not want to stay abreast of a story of redemption?

Issues that inhibited corporate investment, like corruption, vulnerability to flooding, and a problematic permitting and regulatory climate, are being addressed largely at the insistence of the business community. (Detroit, are you listening?)

Now there is no question that federal aid, as alluded to by Hecht, played a huge role. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said last month that it provided $19.6 billion to Louisiana to rebuild and protect property against future storms in the eight years since hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck Louisiana.

But so too does political leadership. I think it safe to say that Louisiana and New Orleans has had some pretty nefarious politicians at the forefront in its history. That might be good for the anointed few but it’s usually not good for the many. In that regard, business can be a progressive force in essentially demanding clean government, much less a pro-business environment. I think that is happening here.

Following in the Mold

The evolution toward a new New Orleans was apparent this past week when Chentech said it would establish a new software development center here. A subsidiary of ChenMed, ChenTech will create 50 new jobs with an average salary of $83,000 year, plus benefits. Economic developers say the same number of new indirect jobs will be created.

I never would have thought of New Orleans for this type of business until recently. But keep in mind that Forbes ranked New Orleans only behind Silicon Valley and San Francisco in the battle for IT jobs. The same magazine ranked the city first in “America’s Biggest Brain Magnets” for attracting people under 25 with college degrees. And that has been a part of the story as the city has repopulated itself after Katrina.

The fact is that when educated young people want to come to your city, that’s a good thing. You have a future based on greater expectations rather than protecting a musty patriarchal status quo. In short, your children and grandchildren are risk takers looking for opportunities to build their own lives and New Orleans is increasingly viewed as an attractive option.

Of course, providing targeted tax relief, greasing the skids so to speak, can always help. Louisiana has a digital interactive media and software development incentive, an offshoot of prior efforts to attract film industry production to the state. The incentive provides a refundable tax credit of 35 percent for most software payroll expenditures for state residents and a 25 percent refundable tax credit for production expenditures related to hardware, software and lease space.

Game On

Paris-based Gameloft, a publisher of mobile games, credits the incentive as a reason for picking New Orleans for its second U.S. game development studio. The company is on track to fulfill its goal of 100 employees by 2016.

One of the biggest coups in reshaping the “new” New Orleans happened in 2010, when after a 17-month search, GE decided the Crescent City would get its first IT Center of Excellence for GE Capital. It has meant 300 jobs and six-figure salaries.

A forward-thinking GE Capital wanted to work with academic institutions to ensure a future talent pipeline. To ensure that would happen, the state committed $5 million to fund expanded computer-science programs at the University of New Orleans and other universities. A substantial workforce training and recruitment package also was offered in addition to a 6 percent annual rebate against new payroll for the first 10 years of operation. That sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

Such inducements get my attention and say something about a changing environment. I notice and so, too, is the world noticing a changing New Orleans. No doubt about it. It’s happening.

That does not mean that I will not continue to have questions and concerns. I will always have questions and concerns — about every place, everywhere, all the time. It’s what I do.

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.

 

 

Roadstead, the Squealer, and Captain Phillips

In Places on September 15, 2013 at 8:04 am

NORFOLK, Va. – Everything looks better from the water.

This is especially so when you are in a safe harbor, and on an evening cruise aboard a yacht in Hampton Roads.

As a barefooted passenger, I took lots of photos of all sorts of grey ominous looking ships of the U.S. Navy as we motored past the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

The impressive armada included an array of destroyers, cruisers, amphibious vessels and some ships that I did not know what they were or did, but was gratified to know that they were there.

Someone pointed out the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77), the 10th and final Nimitz -class supercarrier. Only minutes earlier, we had passed the USS Wisconsin, a decommissioned battleship now berthed for public tour.

At one point during our harbor tour while passing the naval yard, I asked one of my hosts: “Is it OK that I am taking these photographs?”

I was assured that I would not be thrown in the brig for espionage, and was told that it wasn’t too long ago (pre 9/11 and the USS Cole) when you could motor up right alongside the bulkhead of one these imposing warships. Now floating barriers and security boats keep unwanted intruders at bay.

A Motley Crew

Fourteen other site selection consultants were aboard the yacht. Among them were the moose-deprived Ron Ruberg of New Jersey (See May 26 blog “No Place for the Faint of Heart”; Phoenix-based Russ Ullinger with Foote Consulting Group, dressed like an accidental tourist; and Dallas-based Tim Feemster, a serious expert on transportation and logistics who can be pretty funny at times.

And transportation and logistics were why we were here – to learn more about the importance of the Port of Virginia and how it should figure into our calculations when working a site search project.

During a working breakfast earlier that morning, Mike Lehmkuhler, vice president of business attraction with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, and Darryl Gosnell, president and CEO of the Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance, gave us informative briefings on the port and the surrounding region, which, like the body of water, is also called Hampton Roads. More on that later.

After breakfast, we were to shuttled 22 miles from the port to the CenterPoint Intermodal Center in Suffolk. The fairly new logistics park is home to two distribution centers – a 336,960-foot Ace Hardware warehouse, which came online last year, and a 350,000-square foot warehouse operated by the Navy Exchange Service Command.

A prepared shovel-ready pad sits on a 24-acre site adjacent to the Ace Hardware facility, designed for a 350,000-square-foot building. CenterPoint believes it can build up to 5.8 million square feet of industrial facilities on the 648 useable acres within the park, which fronts 12,000 linear feet of CSX main line.

Right across U.S. 58, Target operates a 1.8 million square foot distribution center.

When I was in Detroit a few weeks ago, I thought it strange to see a city of 700,000 people within 130 square miles. Complete city blocks had been obliterated, reverting back to a prairie/rural appearance.

Suffolk is 450 square miles with about 86,000 residents. With expansive fields of peanuts, cotton and soybeans, there are places where you would have no idea you were within a city limits or that a city was even nearby.

The Squealer

From Suffolk, we headed north to the Shirley T. Holland Intermodal Park, owned by the county Isle of Wight. But despite the name, we were not on an island. I didn’t ask.

Lisa Perry, the local economic developer, gave us a rundown on the 1,500-acre  park, where Green Mountain Coffee Roasters operates a new roasting, grinding and packaging facility that will eventually employ 800 people. The park is served by Norfolk Southern, which owns an adjacent 1,700-acre site that the railroad would like to see go toward a future automotive assembly plant or steel mill.

But I must say that my most memorable moment at Isle of Wight was being served a donut that was dripping with maple syrup and bacon bits. It was called “the Squealer” and it may have been the best thing that I have ever eaten.

It turns out the donut shop that produces this secret weapon is owned and operated by Amy Ring, business development manager at the Isle of Wight’s Department of Economic Development. That is so diabolically clever.

Advanced Cargo Facilities

A working lunch would follow at the 573-acre APMT Virginia cargo terminal in Portsmouth, probably the most technologically advanced marine cargo facility in the nation with 4,000 linear feet of berth and 3.3 miles of on-site rail with links to NS and CSX.

The lunch was good, and the facilities briefing topnotch, but I couldn’t get my mind off the Squealer.

Later that afternoon, we were taken to the top of an office tower at the 648-acre Norfolk International Terminals (NIT), the Port of Virginia’s largest terminal and home to 14 of the biggest, most efficient cranes in the world. With a reach stretching 245 feet, the cranes can offload ships loaded 27 containers wide.

There are 12 new on-dock rail lines here at NIT, doubling the capacity of the rail yard.

It was only during our harbor evening cruise that I finally got over that killer donut.  While everything does look better from the water, I was able to gain a bit more understanding of the harbor and port facilities when I saw it from the vantage point of a boat.

The cranes at NIT, standing like towering sentinels at the wharf, were even more impressive when viewed from the channel.

A Place of Firsts

But I really wanted to see the spot where the Battle of Hampton Roads took place March 8-9, 1862, between the first American ironclad warships, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack). Russ Held, senior vice president of business development with the Virginia Port Authority, pointed out the general area.

I believe my in-depth knowledgeable consultant response was, “Wow.”

Hampton Roads is steeped with history, maybe more so than any place in America. It’s here where the makings of a nation would begin with the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown.

In case you haven’t figured out by now, virtually all the place names are of English origin.  Hampton refers to the third earl of Southhampton, who was a founder of the Virginia Company of London.

More interesting to me than some lace-wearing royal is the fact that the word “Roads” (short for roadstead) meant “a place less sheltered than a harbor where ships may ride at anchor.”

And for more than 400 years, ships have been riding at anchor in Hampton Roads, known as the world’s largest natural harbor. It is also the northernmost major East Coast port of the U.S. which is ice-free year round. And with a 50-foot-deep channel, it is one of the deepest harbors on the East Coast. Only Baltimore can match it in that regard.

Because of all these natural attributes, Hampton Roads became an early focal point for the U.S. Navy and commercial shipping. The Gosport Shipyard, renamed the Northfolk Naval Shipyard during the Civil War, was founded here in 1767.

It was here where the keel of USS Chesapeake, one of the first six frigates authorized by Congress, was laid in 1799. And it was here where Drydock Number One, the first functional dry dock in the Americas, was built and used in 1833.

Today, the Navy drydocks nuclear aircraft carriers here and old Drydock Number One is still in use.

I could go on and on about the history of this region and many more firsts, but the purpose of this blog (and my consulting business) is to lean forward into the future, which is precisely why I came here.

An Economic Engine

The Port of Virginia is aptly named. It includes not only four port facilities within the Hampton Roads harbor, but the Port of Richmond farther up the James River and an inland port at Front Royal more than 200 miles away. As such, the Port of Virginia is an economic engine for the entire state, resulting in 343,000 port and port-related jobs statewide and $41 billion in business revenues.

Outgoing Gov. Bob McDonnell spoke about this during our first night in Norfolk. His elevator speech was as good as I have ever heard from a governor. Actually, it was a bit longer than elevator speech but not by much. The point is that he wore the mantel of the state’s top economic development spokesman quite well, which is not always the case with governors.

The Port of Virginia facilities within Hampton Roads are within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population and ranks as the third busiest port on the East Coast behind New York/New Jersey and Savannah in terms of TEU count.

 “Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit” a standard linear industry measurement used in measuring container traffic flows.  One 20-foot long container equals one TEU while one 40-foot container equals two TEUs. One 40-foot container can hold 1,512 cases of beer. I wonder how many Squealers could fit into one.

The Port of Virginia handled more than 2.1 million TEUs in 2012 – more than 1.1 million dedicated to export and nearly 974,000 in import. The total TEU count to date this year is up over 2012. In short, the port is bustling with activity.

Captain Phillips

Finally, there is this soon-to-be-released movie Captain Phillips. I had the pleasure to meet John Reinhart, president and CEO of Norfolk-based Maersk Line Limited, which owned the container ship Maersk Alabama, which was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009.

Parts of the movie, starring Tom Hanks as the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, were filmed in Norfolk. I asked Reinhart if he knew beforehand that Seal Team Six, also based in Norfolk, would be sent in to bring a resolution to the situation

Reinhart said he could not confirm that, but did say that he was able to meet the Navy Seal marksmen who ended the standoff.

To which I believe my in-depth knowledgeable consultant response was again, “Wow.”

I have posted some photographs from my trip to Hampton Roads 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.

 

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.