When we say we need more economic development, that’s just sort of a bureaucratic way of saying we need more jobs.
It’s kind of like a statement we heard on a TV show recently, where a boss told an employee, “When someone comes into the hardware store looking for a quarter-inch drill bit, what they’re saying isn’t that they need a drill bit. What they’re really saying is that they need a quarter-inch hole.”
And, as anyone involved in economic and community development knows, the goal is to create new jobs (preferably ones that provide living wages) at least as fast as the old jobs are slipping away.
Losing jobs — and not having enough new ones to replace them — will eventually spell death for a community, so it’s not only prudent to focus on job recruitment, it’s an absolute necessity to ensure survival.
And when we engage in economic development activities, sometimes we must put city, county and state borders aside and concentrate on the region as a whole.
That’s the message that about 20 community and business leaders from both of the Bristols; Sullivan County, Tennessee; and Washington County, Virginia, heard last week during a forum at the Bristol Chamber of Commerce. The speaker was Mac Holladay, founder and CEO of Market Street Services, an Atlanta-based economic and community development consulting firm.
Successful economic development depends on regional cooperation, and when one community lands a new employer, the benefits often extend well beyond that community’s actual borders, Holladay said.
“It’s clearly communication and understanding [that] the labor shed knows no boundaries,” Holladay told the group, according to a report of the meeting by David McGee in the Bristol Herald Courier. “They don’t care where the city limits are or where the state line is, either.
“Neither does the quality of education,” he said. “Neither does the quality of place because what you want is as many good choices as you can get. You want different places of different sizes to be of quality.”
As Holladay noted, and as anyone involved in economic and community development knows, the keys to successfully promoting your particular region to potential employers are these: quality education (i.e., good schools), a well-prepared and abundant workforce, a good quality of life and adequate health care facilities.
Communities without hospitals find it difficult to recruit new business and industry, he added, pointing out that rural areas where their hospitals have closed are particularly at a disadvantage.
It’s also not productive for communities in the same region to fight each other over potential new employers, creating friction that could turn off executives looking for places to expand their business, Holladay suggested, adding that a new business coming to anywhere in the region should be welcomed and appreciated by everyone else in the area.
“I was very glad to hear one of the practitioners say, ‘If I’m not going to get a business, how do I get it to go to somebody nearby?’” Holladay said. “That’s a very important understanding that if something goes to Sullivan County, it does impact the entire region. The best regional operations we see across the country are the ones that see the crossover benefits.”
The auto industry is a perfect example of that. Although the German automaker Volkswagen chose to locate its new U.S. factory in Chattanooga in 2008, the benefits of that decision are felt throughout the region, even well into upper East Tennessee. That’s because there are many suppliers needed for such a manufacturing facility, and they are spread out over a wide area, bringing good jobs to communities well removed from Chattanooga.
Our region has a lot going for it, including having a very attractive quality of life provided by our scenic beauty and recreational opportunities.
But we still have some considerable challenges, including providing quality education and a well-prepared workforce. While there probably is no shortage of people willing to work, there’s definitely a gap between willing workers and ones who are prepared for the kinds of advanced manufacturing jobs that are most advantageous for the community.
We can say that our community colleges and technical schools are working hard to bridge that gap. The more they do to train and prepare workers for the jobs we want to attract to our region, the more successful our economic development efforts will be.
Bristol Virginia City Manager Randy Eads told the group that it makes sense for the cross-border communities to cooperate.
“I don’t know why we can’t work together,” Eads said. “We need to work with our representatives in Richmond and Nashville to make them understand that this is a unique area of both Tennessee and Virginia, and we’re stronger together than we are separate. If we start working together, we can have a tremendous impact on this region.”
This type of regional cooperation is absolutely necessary to help move our communities forward as we try to overcome the catastrophic job losses we’ve sustained over the past few years.
We must all work together as a region for the benefit of each community. We are all stakeholders in this effort.
“It’s a team sport, first and foremost,” said Beth Rhinehart, president and CEO of the Bristol Chamber.