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Episode 16 – Keys to Success in Economic Development

Site Selectors Guild
Episode 16 - Keys to Success in Economic Development

Rick Weddle: Welcome to “Site Selection Matters,” where we take a close look at the art and science of site selection decision-making. I’m your host, Rick Weddle, president of the Site Selectors Guild. In each episode, we introduce you to leaders in the world of corporate site selection and economic development. We speak with members of the Site Selectors Guild, our economic development partners, and corporate decision-makers to provide you with deep insight into the best and next practices in our profession. In this episode, we have as our guest, Jay Garner, president of Garner Economics. Jay is a leader in the field of economic development and corporate site selection. Today, Jay will talk with us about what he sees is the keys to success in economic development: leadership, business climate, and relationships. In our discussion, we’ll take a deep dive in how these elements work together and the role that the Site Selectors Guild plays in the overall process. Join me as we welcome Jay Garner to “Site Selection Matters.” Jay, today, competitive economic development is a broad aspiration in almost every state, region, or community across the U.S. And like any such goal or aspiration, I’m sure there’s some basic ingredients for success. Take a minute, if you will, and share your views on some of these key ingredients.

Jay Garner: Rick, thank you. I think that in our world of economic development and, you know, what we see is a lot of cyclical nature based on economies, targets, new industry sectors and so forth. There’s one common denominator that doesn’t change in the site selection process. And that’s leadership. And what I mean about that is the quality of your public and private leadership drive economic development success. Good leadership will drive economic development to a state, region, or a community. Poor leadership will drive investment opportunity out of that community.

Rick: Interesting, Jay. Leadership. I mean, that seems to be kind of a start and the stop of the whole shooting match. And it’s really key. I think, whether we’re talking about economic development or almost any collective endeavor, leadership seems to rise to the top. Could you help unpack that a bit more and talk about what makes up that community leadership?

Jay: Well, you’re exactly right. I mean, you think about it for a second. When you talk about what are some of the tools, what’s the necessary product that a community needs to attract and retain investment? So, for example, office parks, industrial parks, community colleges, an effective economic development service delivery program, which typically takes money. What communities are doing now to build the talent pipeline, to skill people up, all of those components, take leadership, to, first of all, get a champion to make it happen and then to actually execute those programs or initiatives to make it work. So, all of those initiatives have that one common denominator associated with it every time. And that’s leadership. So, when you have leadership, leadership also drives what I call business climate. Business climate is particularly attributed on the public or political side. Okay? So, when you look at these different publications, these different rankings that have business climate, there’s one in particular that I give a lot of credibility to. I think it’s measurable, think it’s accountable, useful, and you can validate the information. And that’s the tax foundation’s annual ranking of state tax business climates. And of course, a tax business climate is always developed based on state legislators and the legislature, and what they enact in terms of taxes. Same with the local level too. You know, currently, there’s a teacher strike in Chicago and it’s all about the teachers wanting to have greater pay and subsidized housing. The mayor, of course, is saying we’re gonna have a $900 million budget shortfall, and therein lies the divide. But you go back to a business climate and business climate is a key consideration of a community’s ability to attract and retain investment. And case in point, think about this for a second too when Amazon made their two announcements, and then actually their third, because of the additional one in Nashville, they ended up pulling out a couple of weeks later in Queens, New York. Key consideration was the business climate of that community, the pushback from both the constituents in that community and the elected officials in that [inaudible 00:05:37], that felt like it was going to be too much of a challenge, that basically describes the community’s business climate.

Rick: Jay, I want to dig in a little deeper on business climate in just a second. But let’s go back to leadership. I have a question I’d like to dive a little deeper, in that, you know, when people think of leadership, we talk about governors, and mayors, and legislators, and business leaders, and CEOs. But I’d like for you to talk a little bit if you could, both of us having worked in community economic and regional economic development, what about the role of staff? Isn’t there a leadership role for senior staff in economic development?

Jay: Sure. That’s a great point. Well, obviously, in an environment like that, all staff is responsible for the execution of policy. Okay? And sometimes staff will get crossed up with their public and private leaders if they take too aggressive of a role in helping to shape or form policy. But guess what? That’s what they’re hired to do. If you’re a leader, running an economic development organization, then it really is incumbent upon you to show leadership and have the courage and offer what is needed within your respective region or community because economic development is always sold on the local level, right? I mean, you’ve gotta have a state that has a great environment to attract business. But at the end of the day, the transaction is always local, which is why I use one of my mantras, “You market yourself regionally and you sell yourself locally.” So, I’ve always felt that it’s been incumbent upon that local economic development practitioner to at least offer policy recommendations that will enhance the economic vitality of that community. Now, they gotta be careful because that could go crossways with their elected leadership or with their volunteer leadership. And at the end of the day, they are working for that organization. But that’s the reason why, you know, from time to time, economic development people will leave, and they leave because they want a new opportunity elsewhere or it’s, you know, sadly, because they’ve worn out there welcome in that particular community because they have gone crossways with the leadership on policy or on execution.

Rick: You know, Jay, done correctly, at the staff or management level, playing that leadership role, it creates what I call a healthy tension between your elected or your business leaders and management. And I guess the key to success is doing the job that needs to be done, whether you were hired to do it or not and managing that tension so that it’s always healthy. And it’s kind of a little bit of a tightrope. You wanna push hard, but not so hard, that the pushback pushes you out of town, I suppose.

Jay: Oh, sure. You know, and I’ve always admired when you were an economic development practitioner, I always admired the work that you did because you worked in some places on a regional level, such as in the Phoenix metro area. And so, your key job was to create deal flow. But then you had to work with those different economic development practitioners, the local ED people, because their job was to actually help make the transaction. You were put into that capacity too, you know. And so, how people will react to the roles in the environment of each type of economic development organization, their mission, their goal is I think paramount to success.

Rick: That’s absolutely correct. You know, Jay, back to business climate quickly, you mentioned business climate, the importance of a competitive business climate. You mentioned also the tax foundation’s annual report on business climate. Share with us if you can kind of your view on what are the top two or three most important aspects of business climate when it comes to attracting new industry or growing existing industry.

Jay: I think the regulatory process in that community is extremely important, or the state. The state, if we have a project that may be more heavily resource-based such as chemical, paper, steel, then obviously, the state’s environmental and regulatory process is gonna have a significant role in it. But on a local level, you know, every community has some form of a planning and regulatory department, right? So, what I have always said is that effective communities are based on certainty, simplicity, and speed. Let me reiterate that. You have a regulatory process that’s based on certainty, simplicity, and speed, then you have a step above a lot of your competitors. So, certainty means with your regulations, with your statutes, you wanna make sure that a bureaucrat is not interpreting that information on a whim. That happens a lot. We see that a lot in the site selection process. And a lot of local developers, a lot of brokers that are on the local level will vent about that. And so, those communities that have a culture of working with companies, and consultants, and a culture of yes, seem to be those communities that are succeeding in today’s environment.

Rick: You know, Jay, that’s almost elegant the way you broke that down because those three kind of watchwords, certainty, simplicity, speed, answer the kind of simple questions, can I get it done? Can I figure out how to get it done and how long is it gonna take? Makes it very predictable. Hey, Jay, even with good leadership in a competitive business climate, it seems to me that this is still and maybe will be for a long time, a people business that is very much advanced by sometimes the personal networking that we go through to establish good working relationships. Is that right?

Jay: It’s 100% right. I’ve been in this business now for 39 years. I’m gonna hit my 40th anniversary in the economic development world this coming January. I am an instructor at the University of Oklahoma’s Economic Development Institute. I just got back this week. It was in Denver. And I’ve been instructing there since 1987. And I tell the students each time I’m there, that there is one thing about this business that has not changed and will never change because as you well know, we’ve gone through tremendous change in our industry, primarily driven by technology. But one thing has never changed and won’t change, and that is this is a relationship business, 100%. I’ve done a lot of international work over the years, and doing work internationally, it’s all about building relationships, not contact relationships, and I still get Christmas cards, or notes from people in Asia, who have been long retired, but we have formed this relationship, not a contact but a relationship. And so, when I’m doing executives…when I’m doing a search or a company, you know, people will say, “Well, who do you contact initially? Is it the state? Is it the region? Is it the local community? Is it the utility?” And my answer is, well, really it depends. It always depends on the project. But I will always try to reach out to someone who I have a relationship, first and foremost, because it’s better for all of us in that world if we can work together.

Rick: Absolutely. It’s kind of the old saying, who do you do business with? People you know and people you know well and have a good relationship. Hey, let’s switch gears just a bit if we can. What role do you see that the Site Selectors Guild as an organization has played in helping to create, establish, forge these relationships that are really needed to kind of make the connection between ED practitioner and site consultant? Has the guild played a role in that?

Jay: We’ve played a huge role in that. You know, we’re gonna be 10 years old next year, believe it or not. So, in 2020, we will celebrate our 10th anniversary, which is amazing. And I’m just, you know, thrilled to see the success of it. When we founded the organization 10 years ago, almost 10 years ago, we wanted to do so really on two key tenants, Rick. One is that we wanted to create an offer, thought leadership to economic development practitioners that may want to learn from that thought leadership. And obviously too we learn from economic development practitioners. I do every day. The other is we wanted to be able to create valuable networking opportunities. And I think we’ve done that exceptionally well. In fact, over the years, I’ve been able to generate client searches in communities based on networking, where someone has talked with me about the value proposition of their community. And then a light bulb went off that, “Hey, this might be a great fit for a potential client.” Well, that potential client then turned into a real client, we would do the RFI and the RFP, but that individual or that community was always top of mind and it fit geographically. And so, we would be able to do things together. That’s what networking is all about. Effective networking in the Guild, I think has done that exceptionally well.

Rick: Very interesting. You know, Jay, we’re almost out of time but I really wanna get in a little deeper on this networking activity. You know, the Guild has annual conference, has a fall forum, has advisory forums, has other kind of opportunities to do particular thought leadership, research papers, and so on. But I’m curious about some of them more specifically. One, for example, that’s synonymous with Jay Garner is the talent show, which has been a big feature at our annual conferences over the years. How did that come about and how does that help advance the business of forming these relationships?

Jay: Yeah, it’s been great. And none of us knew what to expect. Heck, we didn’t know what to expect when we were gonna have our first annual conference. We had our first annual conference in 2011 in Orlando. And coincidentally, you were in Orlando when we first did that, and you were a sponsor of our first conference. We didn’t know if we were gonna have 50 people or 250 people. We just didn’t know what to expect. Okay? We had 250 people. So that alone was a huge success. Secondly, we said, “Look, we need to do something that’s more unique than just have another speaker at a dinner. We needed to make it fun, but we needed to humanize this with the paid registrants and Guild members who were gonna be there. So, I am a musician. I’m a drummer in a big band jazz orchestra in Atlanta. I’ve been playing drums for over 50 years. And we came up with this idea. Tracey Bosman and I were the co-chairs of the first Guild conference. And I think she said to me, “I know you’re a musician. Why don’t we have a talent show?” And I said, “Well, I don’t wanna do a live karaoke thing. That’s cheesy. If we’re gonna do a talent show, we need to do with a live band.” So, we came up with this concept of a talent show. I brought four of my band members. There are 16 in our big band jazz orchestra. We brought four. We became the Guild’s house band. As part of that, what we did was we put a word out in advance that we’re gonna have a talent show. If you’re interested, sign up. Let us know what song you wanna do. We’ll rehearse with you the day of the talent show. And we’ll have a lot of fun.

Well, it has really just taken off. So, we’ve grown it, it’s become an iconic event. It really got its legs when we performed at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I have friends who are professional musicians in Nashville. They wish they played at the Country Music Hall of Fame. They haven’t. We have. And so, it’s just been a whole lot of fun. It is coming to an end. It’s reaching its lifecycle. So, our final conference in Atlanta is gonna be the final talent show. And as a group, the Guild will come together and think of something that humanizes and brings fun to all of the participants as 2.0. It will be the next reiteration of what we do but we didn’t want the talent show to get stale, and that’s why it’s just gonna be our last one in Atlanta. It’s been a lot of fun. Can’t wait to see how we’re able to close it out with some really, Rick, I’m gonna tell you, some really magnificent talent from economic development people, some real ringers out there who perform in weekend bands and are just really talented people.

Rick: That’s really interesting. You know, the Guild’s power is the power of convening and bringing people together in these large meetings. And then the talent show, it sounds like has been a way to add some real texture to that networking opportunity with everyone working together. Not to use a worn-out cliche, but this is gonna be a hard act to follow to fill out after the talent show as we get on that. Any ideas?

Jay: Not yet. But we are gonna have to come together and think of some great ideas so that it’s not a letdown. We are going back to Orlando for our 10th anniversary, which I think is just magnificent that we’re coming full circle 10 years later. And so, since we’re gonna be in Orlando, which is what I think one of the entertainment capitals of the world, it’s gotta be good, right?

Rick: That’ll be something. That’ll be 2021. So, it’s Atlanta in 2020 and Orlando in 2021.

Jay: That’s right. Yes.

Rick: Hey, Jay, what a great conversation this has been. What an interesting topic. I guess we could talk about it all day. But that’s really all the time we have. So, if you will, let me say thanks to you, Jay, for taking time to be with us today on this episode of “Site Selection Matters.”

Jay: Thank you so much, Rick. It’s been a pleasure, as always.

Rick: Thanks for listening to this episode of “Site Selection Matters.” And a special thanks to Jay for leading us in a wide-ranging discussion of some of the keys to success in economic development. What an informative discussion, one that leaves us with much to think about. Again, I’m Rick Weddle, president of the Site Selectors Guild. We hope you will subscribe to “Site Selection Matters” podcasts on Apple Podcast, on Stitcher, on Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcast. We look forward to bringing you some great discussions in the year ahead. Until next time, good day.