The Economic Developer in All of Us!
By Matt Arnold
I often get told how interesting my job must be and that people are fascinated by what economic developers do. Most times, the economy notwithstanding, I totally agree. I am blessed to be in a unique profession for which I have extreme passion. A colleague and I have even toyed with the notion of pitching Hollywood a concept for a reality show about economic developers. I mean heck, if you can have reality shows about guys that drive trucks in the Arctic, make wooden duck calls in Louisiana or are just named Kardashian, why not?
The reality is, we are all economic developers. We sell our communities every day. As citizens we sell it in direct and indirect ways. Let me give you a couple of examples. Back in the early 2000s after Honda announced they would build an assembly plant in Lincoln, Alabama, we saw a flurry of activity from automotive suppliers. Most were from the Ohio area because Honda has such a large footprint there. Marshall County located two suppliers during that wave, TSTECH in Boaz and HFI in Arab. Later as Honda expanded, we also landed Newman Technology in Albertville. Combined, these companies employ over 1,000 people here.
While we were closing the deal with TSTECH, we were also competing on a project with a company call GTI (Greenville Technology Inc.) They were from Greenville, Ohio and like TSTECH needed to locate a facility in Alabama. They had looked all over the region and the project was down to a building in Arab, a building in Gadsden or a speculative building in Cullman. We felt confident that we had a great shot at it and that we could be very competitive on the project. After the second visit, we did not hear anything for a few weeks. Then the call came from the state that they were going elsewhere. Later we learned that on their flight back to Ohio, one of the company executives happened to sit next to a gentleman from another community in Alabama, Rainsville. This individual was so convincing in his sell of his town, that they came back to Alabama, visited Rainsville and RTI announced later that year.
Now of course, Rainsville and DeKalb County EDA had to put together a package and convince the company that they had the workforce, infrastructure and community support just like we did but the point was, they were not in the running until a citizen economic developer had the good fortune to be at the right place at the right time.
But of course the opposite is also true. While I won’t share names and details here, there are many war stories in my profession about projects lost because a consultant or company official visited a community anonymously, ask around, met individuals and found people who did not speak well of their town. Common litter and roadside clutter is another turnoff for prospective business folks.
It can even be more bizarre than that. One such story involved an economic developer who was driving a prospect to a site and the prospect noted that there were a lot of churches for such a small community. Thinking the prospect a religious man, he commented, “Yes this is a very religious county.” The prospect noted that the presence of so many small churches is usually indicative of many churches splitting over the years and that if people can’t get along while worshiping God, they probably don't get along well in business. That community didn’t land that one.
The takeaway from all this is that we are all ambassadors for Marshall County. We have landed more companies over the years because of local citizens and their connections referring companies to our area than any marketing or recruiting effort can ever hope to achieve. But we also have to be mindful that people are watching us. An ill word, a littered community, even too many small churches can turn a decision maker away. We are all economic developers and we are all in this together for the betterment of Marshall County!