As Ady Advantage works with our economic development organization (EDO) clients, we always stress what I believe to be the most important factors to successful economic development:
- Regionalism and alignment, the ongoing coordination and cooperation among economic developers in a geographic region;
- Readiness, the capacity to respond quickly and effectively to opportunities as they arise; and
- Differentiation, discovering and focusing on your unique competitive strengths.
None of these are easy. They all take consistent effort and focus over time to achieve. And yet the one that is often the most difficult – regionalism and alignment – is also the one that is likely to have the biggest impact.
We’ve long been advocates for regionalism: my dad, Bob Ady, was encouraging communities, especially those in rural areas like southern Georgia, Oklahoma, Colorado, to create formal regional groups as far back as the early 1990s. As more of these regional consortia have sprung up, many communities fall within the service territory of one or more such groups today.
Regionalism is important because it matches the way businesses make expansion decisions. A business with a relocation or expansion project is not going to start by hunting for your community. Rather, it will begin by determining the business assets it needs in its new location – talent, access to markets, transportation infrastructure, and so on – and eliminating areas that don’t provide these assets, starting from large geographical regions and moving to more specific ones. Because any given community draws on the resources of its neighboring region, promoting that region’s assets is far more likely to get the interest of businesses than for each community for to compete with each other for attention. Increasingly, what holds true for businesses, also holds true for talent, as they decide where they want to live.
We were recently helping a small community develop its first economic development strategic plan. As many communities are, this particular community was located within the footprint of a regional economic development organization. One of the key aspects of our plan for our client was to leverage the work and advocacy that the regional group was undertaking. We interviewed other small communities located within the footprint of a regional economic development organization, as well as some of the nation’s best regional EDOs to understand how these two kinds of organizations could best work together.
Supporting and participating in a regional EDO can often seem like just one more demand among all the options that cities, villages, towns and counties have for investing their scarce economic development dollars. Yet dollar for dollar, investing in a regional EDO is one of the best investments as local EDO can make. Why?
- It gives you a voice at the regional table. Even if you’re not enthusiastic about everything the regional group does, active participation allows you to shape its decision making and keeps the needs of your community prominent in its considerations.
- It helps communities within a region, which may have seen each other in the past as rivals, to develop trust and consensus around shared goals and initiatives.
- Regional EDOs are more effective if they can count on active participation from their local groups so that they can focus on bringing the story of the region to the external stakeholders (relocating businesses, site selectors, and in some cases, legislators and others) on behalf of the group.
- Your municipality or county can take advantage of the programs, services and resources that are available at the regional level, resources that would be prohibitively expensive or even impossible for you to do on your own.
- It connects you with other local EDOs that can serve as a network, sounding board, and peer for your group as you work through local ED issues. This alone can be priceless for many smaller local EDOs who may have only one or two people serving in an economic development capacity.
- Many economic development issues, such as talent, are regional in nature, so a regional EDO is the logical place to address them.
If budgets are tight, the investment in the regional economic development organization is all the more critical. Pooling your resources will avoid costly duplicated efforts that will be less effective than a consistent regional initiative. A reliable revenue stream enables the regional EDO to hire and retain the best staff and provide programs without disruption.
As I see it, local EDOs that have strong regional, state and utility EDOs in alignment are those who are going to be the most likely to succeed. The first step toward that success is partnering with your regional group.
At Ady Advantage, we have helped communities nationwide with their regional alignment efforts. If you’re ready to start a regional group, or to make your existing regional EDO more effective, we welcome the opportunity to discuss your needs and propose the right solution.