It’s not a new country song. It’s a fact of life. If we don’t show our existing industry a little “love,” they will leave.
Many folks view economic development efforts to be the attraction of new industry to the area, and that’s certainly part of it. Another, and probably more important aspect of economic development, is the retention of existing business. In a perfect world, existing industry would have no local issues, would be perfectly happy in your community, and would gladly sing your community’s praises to anybody who would listen. Unfortunately, as your momma probably told you years ago, we don’t live in a perfect world.
An industry retention plan is key to keeping your local industries. I call it “loving up” on them. Local leaders, and especially economic developers, need to be in constant contact with local industry to find out if issues are arising that can be helped on a local level. The issue could be as simple as help with traffic control at shift change, or as critical as workforce needs not being met. Whatever the issue, the local leaders need to know about and work with existing industry to solve the problems. According to David Hutchison, economic developer for Butler County, “You don’t need to know the answers to all their questions, you just need to know how to put them in touch with the people that do!”
It may seem obvious why existing industries are important – they add to the employment base, pay taxes into the community, and contribute in many other ways to local efforts. However, existing industries are also key in two other ways. The first is expansion. Gary Faulkner, economic developer for Lowndes County puts it this way, “Existing industry is the primary engine of both job creation and local investments in our community.” When an existing industry needs to expand their production, the hope would be that the expansion happens in your community. Studies show that 50-80% of new jobs come from existing industry. “I feel like it (business retention and expansion) could be the most important part of our mission because most of the growth in local jobs comes from existing industry,” according to Wayne Vardaman, head of the Dallas County Economic Development Authority. However, if the company is having problems locally, and is getting no help from the local community, odds are that the expansion, and maybe the whole plant, will end up going somewhere else.
Existing industry is also critical is in the attraction of new industry to your area. When an industry looks to land in an area, they typically reach out to the existing industry in that community to see what the community is like – does the local community support the business, is there a skilled, ready and available workforce, what is the quality of life, etc. If the existing industry is not happy, then they will let any potential industry know about it.
In the long run, the relationship between existing industry and the local community is like a marriage – everybody has to get along, work hard, and solve problems before they get out of hand. And like marriage, if you don’t love ‘em, you’re gonna lose ‘em.
Cleve Poole serves as the Vice President of Economic Development and Economic Development at Pioneer Electric Cooperative. This article was originally published in the Pioneer Electric edition of Alabama Living magazine in June 2017.