Guest Post: Economic Development for Smaller Communities

Brian Coughlin is the President and CEO of the Clinton County Economic Alliance.

As a local official, do you feel that you are sitting on the sidelines when it comes to economic development? Don’t. Even if you are a small township or village and do not have the funding to support a dedicated, fulltime economic development (ED) professional on staff, you can still compete in the economic development arena. Here are some thoughts that you might want to consider implementing.

Nurture your existing businesses. Approximately 75% of new jobs in a community are created by existing businesses so it is of paramount importance to meet regularly with the owners or managers of companies already doing businesses in your area. It is important to identify any problems they are facing on the local level and to discuss potential solutions or suggestions that can lessen any difficulties they are facing. This may be easier said than done but in economic development you must become an advocate for local businesses sometimes to keep them in the community. They can always relocate somewhere else when their lease is up

Business Attraction. Many larger economic development organizations today focus on targeted industries or industry clusters. However, with our current economic downturn, being overly selective can and will be problematic. Sure we would all like a new high tech firm with 200 new jobs to open its doors in our community but it is more likely in today’s environment to recruit 10 companies that employ 20 people in order to create 200 new jobs.

In 2007 before moving back to Michigan, I was able to recruit a $470 million biopharmaceutical manufacturing plant that employs 500 workers to the Ohio County where I was director of economic development. So large projects are still out there, but smaller companies do most of the hiring, job creation, and provide the best opportunity for job growth.

Make Friends with Your Local EDO. One of the best and quickest ways to get on the road to a better economic development track is to make friends with your local economic development organization (EDO). Many Michigan Counties have an economic development department and there are many regional EDOs throughout the state. You should introduce yourself to the EDO staff members, ask them how you can better position your community in their ED efforts, and, most importantly, ask for their help and assistance. If you are in a more rural location, try the local Michigan State University Extension district office. There are 13 MSU Extension Districts in the State – two in the UP and 11 in the lower peninsula. Economic development and job creation and retention are part of focus of the MSU Extension. You can find their nearest office at www.msue.msu.edu.

Your Website. Your website is the most efficient and inexpensive way to keep your residents informed. It is also the business world’s window into your community. Fully 90% of all site selection searches for new facility locations or plant expansion analyses begin on the internet. Site selection consultants, corporate real estate and operations executives, and commercial real estate professionals and their staffs worldwide can be on the web 24/7 researching site selection options.

Website as an ED Tool. Your website will more than likely be the only online representation of your community they see on the internet if they are considering your geographical region for a project. The same can be said for a Michigan company that is looking to expand its market. To be competitive, you need to upgrade your website by making some basic changes and additions.

First of all, if you don’t have an economic development section on your website, add one. To be most effective, list the ED section on the front page with a point and click button that takes the viewer directly to the ED section.

Website Content. The minimum content for your ED section or page should include a community profile, available buildings and land, workforce, demographics, education, infrastructure, maps, and contact information. You can find most of this information on the internet if you are thorough, creative, and patient. Here is what each section should contain:

  • Community Profile. This should be the front or first page of your ED section and should be a summary of all the following sections of the ED portion of your website. This is where you want to put your best assets forward because this may be the only section the viewer reads to get a quick sense of who you are and where your township, village or city is located. It is important to be honest; don’t try to be something you are not. However, if you have highly rated schools or a special local tourist attraction this is the place to feature it. And, use the Michigan assets mentioned earlier in this article that apply to your community.
  • Available Buildings and Land. This is actually the most important section of any ED website. After all, you are trying to attract new businesses and jobs to your community so you have to show potential investors that you have land to build on and/or existing buildings for lease. Location maps, pictures, and building descriptions including square footage, zoning, etc. are important for buildings as are acreage and zoning for parcels. You should talk to local Realtors for help in gathering this data and helping you with getting it on your website. They should be interested in helping because it will be an additional way to market their listings.
  • Workforce. This is the section where you want to list your largest employers with the number of workers they employ. Also include your county workforce data from the U.S. Census website to show the regional workforce pool that employers can draw from in your region. The quality and education level of your workforce is a key component in attracting new businesses to your area. Companies must be satisfied that workers in your area have the skills or adaptability to learn the skills they need in their workforce. That is a big part of the reason that information technology companies tend to locate in larger metro areas or near college towns. Manufacturers, on the other hand, have learned to appreciate the innate mechanical skills that people in rural and agricultural areas develop growing up.
  • Demographics. Much of the demographic data for your area is available at the U.S. Census website. You should include population; population by age; households by income levels average and median household incomes; owner occupied, renter occupied, and vacancy ratios; educational attainment; size of your workforce; and unemployment rate. While anyone can look up these statistics, site selection and real estate professionals want it readily available and at their fingertips on your website.
  • Education. Employers want to know about schools, community colleges, and colleges and universities that serve a region so that they can determine the quality of the local workforce and the attractiveness of school systems for transferring workers coming into the area. This section can simply be a listing and enrollment figures for the local elementary, middle, and high schools in your area as well as the universities, colleges, and community colleges within a 100 mile radius of your community.
  • Infrastructure. Your infrastructure section should mention the community’s proximity to nearby major state roads, highways and interstates; airports, rail, and ports if applicable; gas and electric utility suppliers; sewer and water types; and telecommunications companies serving the area including broadband. While this is all basic information, potential businesses need to know what to expect in your community.
  • Maps. Maps and other visual representations will help businesses and site selection professionals understand your location within Michigan; your proximity to highways, airports, and other transportation modes; and potential markets. More importantly, they are readily available on the internet. It is not a necessity that you incorporate them into your website but they will make your site look more professional and complete.
  • Contact information. Obvious and necessary, your contact information should include a telephone number, address, and e-mail address. I would highly recommend that one individual be the single contact and have sole responsibility managing economic development for the township, village or city to focus responsibility and accountability. Logically this would be the supervisor, village president, mayor or administrator for larger communities.

While a website section for economic development might seem to be a daunting task, it shouldn’t be. Take one component at a time, work at your own pace, and recruit help from local experts like Realtors, graphic designers, and others with some experience and knowledge of websites and the internet. I started my job in Clinton County earlier this year and am just about half way through revising our website content. If I can do it, so can you. Good luck and I think you will be pleased with the result.

— Brian Coughlin