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Community preparedness is about vision

By David Rumbarger

Success in economic development is the goal of every community, and it comes with the price of community preparation. Preparation takes time, resources, and hard work. Unlike corporate America, which has the flexibility to create and execute a business plan, community change requires planning and then enlisting support and adaptation to new ideas, which can take a lot more time.

The first step calls for the community to identify a product or site - a physical location for investment by a prospective company. Sites need to be vetted. It isn't simply identifying some land like a fifty-acre bean field on the edge of town. The land needs to be owned or optioned with a clear title and no impingements such as mineral rights, easements, or environmental shortcomings that elongate the location timeline. The land must have adequate utilities, water, wastewater, electricity, natural gas, transportation and most recently, bandwidth in telecommunications.

There is an old saying "No site, no project," and in the current economic development market the site must be fully prepared. Many regional utilities have used versions of certified site programs to motivate and encourage communities to focus on this aspect of community preparation. Our supplier, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), was one of the first to recognize and put money into sites. Ready-to-go sites separate communities into winners and losers at the beginning of the location process. The better prepared the community and the site, the more likely a community is to make a candidate list for a prospect visit.

After a site is developed, a community must identify and cultivate the qualities that will convince someone to make the community their home. Put simply, what could make someone want to live here?  A community needs to focus on its quality of place. The quality of place issue seems to dominate discussions as a fundamental requirement of the location's success.

What exactly does it mean? When a company considers a potential community, can they envision recruiting executives and staff to live and work there? Over the years, the factors have grown to encompass a variety of qualities like affordable housing and well-rounded neighborhoods, arts opportunities, sports, and healthcare. Schools and public services are assumed to be strong points and need to be highlighted. The community needs a diverse economy that will present career opportunities for the trailing spouses.

One of the most difficult visits is when the plant manager facing reassignment to the new operation comes along for the visit. The presentation suddenly requires a more complicated and thorough strategy. For example, one of our recent prospects had a daughter who was a star softball player.  After a lot of talk about utilities, labor force, and construction possibilities, his emotional concern surfaced and the area's softball opportunities for a sixteen-year-old girl became a major factor. Those, non-location elements, dictated his site preferences and house-shopping patterns to maximize her playing time and scholarship potentials. We understood, made the proper introductions, and located the company that has since expanded.

A lot of economic discussion revolves around population numbers, but once the process gets past community size and employable pool, those numbers turn into faces and personalities. People make up the fabric of the town, which manifests itself in a number of ways, such as quality of youth sports programs and facilities, quality of school support organizations and civic club projects, and the hometown feel of a community. Tupelo has a history and expectation of community service. A plant manager who recently relocated to town commented that within the first two weeks of his move, he and his employees were invited to a number of community committees and organizations for solicitation of their volunteer hours and philanthropic support. That's how one community welcomes and integrates outsiders to participants in the community vision. The private companies that are citizens of their communities have to be engaged in the building of good communities, not to be as a short sighted corporate strategy. Good and productive employees come from stable and happy communities full of potential. 

Typically, successful economic development is best when privately led by community members willing to step up and have a vision of prosperity for their neighbors. Enlightened self-interest needs to help motivate community achievement. It's the men and women that create the public/private network to get things done in the community from school bond issues, healthcare capacity, housing and community feel, and presence. They are the sales team for the economic development efforts; they are the keepers of the community trust, and they make plans annually with bold goals. 

They then go one step farther, implementing and holding one another accountable for the progress and achievement of those goals. At CDF, we have adopted our founder, George McLean's (1922-1983) mantra, which ultimately we work toward every day for "more and better jobs for area citizens."  Economic development success is within a community's grasp if they prepare for that future, a future that everyone desires. So, start today. 

David Rumbarger is President and CEO of the Community Development Foundation in Tupelo, Miss.

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