One of the best things about my job is that I get to meet economic development professionals from all over the country, including many who are new to the industry. I mentor as many of these newcomers as I can, because I’m excited for the future they will help create. Truthfully, I learn just as much from them as they do from me.
Let me share with you some of the actions that these new economic developers are taking in their communities. There may be some new ideas that might apply to even the most seasoned economic developers who are just looking for some new approaches.
One developer did all of these steps within the first month as an ED director in her small town of 800 people:
- Visit each of your existing businesses. Find out what’s on their minds – concerns and aspirations. Formalize it, at least into a spreadsheet. These are not social calls, they’re business calls. And frankly, your more seasoned peers will tell you that documenting this outreach can serve as a very tangible demonstration of your value when the discussion about ROI inevitably arises from your Board or another stakeholder.
- Get out to conferences, and talk to your peers. The NREDA is a great organization to join, and there are many others depending on your specific interests. Bonus idea: On your way to and from these conferences, visit with other communities’ economic development directors. Ask them what strategies they are pursuing and why.
- Reach out to your local, regional and statewide ED contacts. Ask what’s going on, how you can get involved, and what resources they either have for you or can get you in touch with. At a minimum, hear about incentives and training programs for economic developers.
- Start to document existing sites and buildings, and make sure this information is listed on available databases. Regional and national searches almost always start with the search for an available property, so make sure you’re in the running from the beginning. This exercise will also help you identify whether or not additional sites and buildings need to be brought into the pipeline.
- Survey the community, using a free service like Survey Monkey.
The next steps are to:
- Start to document other assets, whether these are interstate highways, railroads, educational assets (even if it’s only the local high school), or tourism traffic. It is critically important to start with an understanding of your assets BEFORE you launch into visioning or other exercises, as this will help ensure that the vision is anchored to your community’s assets.
- Track key happenings in the region, or those that may affect her community. Setting up Google Alerts or Talkwalker Alerts are a free and easy way to get started. As an example, set up searches for existing businesses, and not just their local operations, but the headquarters for any that are a division of a bigger company. (The local plant manager is often the last to know of changes affecting his plant.)
- Establish your initial online presence. For economic developers, a website is still a requirement, but LinkedIn, Google Plus and Facebook can also play a role. Set up a LinkedIn company page and a personal profile ASAP. These will help connect you to your peers and colleagues all across the globe. Google Plus can help with your search engine rankings. And Facebook is especially helpful if you anticipate consumer-related communications, such as community development components or initiatives to attract talent.
- Spread the good news. The above two steps will give you some content and some distribution channels for that content. Start pushing out the “good news” stories to your constituents. This can be done through one or more email newsletters, and/or through LinkedIn. Save these as content that can eventually be used to populate your website. Do not spam site selectors or others with advertisements for industrial buildings. Instead, focus on sharing valuable information and updates. Keep them short and sweet, and only send something out when you have something to say.
Then the real work begins!
- Gain consensus for where your community wants to go, and what the EDO’s role is in that. My mentee said it great: “I’m the new Economic Development Director, of a brand-new Economic Development organization. I can’t walk in and start dictating what they need to do. I need to help guide them through the discovery process, so that we can create our future together.”
Janet Ady is an author, speaker and consultant on economic development strategy and marketing, with a special place in her heart for rural economic development. In 2014, she published The Rural Economic Development Toolbox based on a curriculum she designed for a course at the NREDA conference. In 2015, she published The Talent Toolbox for Economic Developers which provides insight into what works, doesn’t work, and why when it comes to talent recruitment and retention. For more information about Janet Ady or her company, Ady Advantage, contact her at [email protected], 608-66309218, or visit www.adyadvantage.com. She offers a free bi-weekly ED newsletter that you can subscribe to on her website.