For many years, while working at the Washington State Department of Commerce, I wrote a January blog of New Year’s resolutions for economic developers. They included the usual strategies and reminders that often got overlooked during the year such as become a mentor, asset map your community, update your website, celebrate downtown businesses, and reduce the chocolate chip cookie intake.
That last one was more of a perennial personal resolution I make every year. This year, it lasted three days due to a friend baking two dozen cookies for me on January 4. It was for a good cause. I was helping her bakery startup, or so I told myself. But USA today says that 80% of resolutions fail within the first week of January. So, I am in the higher percentile. Plus, they were great cookies, so it was worth it.
Several weeks ago, I received a number of emails from economic developers who asked me where my new Year’s resolutions were for 2022. (To clarify, 3 is a number of people. I did not say there were a lot of people requesting my wisdom)
I responded to them that I was retired and busy searching for a K-95 mask, being on hold for an appointment for the latest booster shot, waiting in line to get a covid test, quarantining in my apartment because a random stranger coughed near me, and cataloguing the latest CDC regulations. It’s tough being retired. I wish I had trademarked the phrase “CDC says”. I would be living on royalties rather than my government pension.
But I digress. (I know, long segue)
I was then reminded that retirement is a time you can sit back and give advice to others even though you never followed it in your own life. Since sending out New year’s resolutions in February is way past the “best said” date, I thought I would give you some nontraditional ideas that will help businesses start or grow in your community. As the pandemic subsides and brings back many standard behaviors, economic developers need to look at doing things a bit differently rather than waiting and hoping things will return to normal.
Expand the organizational board to include librarians and youth: Most economic development boards consist of elected officials, corporate contributors, retired economic developers and occasionally business owners. These are all good professions of people who want to help grow the community. However, adding librarians, you will not only get a different perspective of the area, but they are an important and dynamic part of the community’s economic development infrastructure.
They can recommend resources that assist patrons with online business information, provide workspaces for mobile workers, provide free space for co-working and classes that support small business and future entrepreneurs, and research grant opportunities. They can also provide value with research for business and talent attraction. In some rural communities they are deploying telehealth to bring affordable health care where it is needed, an important aspect for economic development retention and expansion. Even more importantly, librarians can expand linkages between urban and rural areas that can be turned into jobs, youth retention and economic opportunity. Public libraries are finding their place in making communities stronger. Economic developers should make a place for them at the table to elevate the economic potential of your community.
Introduce bartering into your economy: Bartering is the world’s oldest form of currency. In fact, 30% of the worlds business is non-cash. With most businesses facing economic uncertainty and the desire to save cash, bartering has become an alternative solution. Simply put, bartering is the idea of swapping, trading, or exchanging goods and services in an economy. But bartering is not just one-on-one trades of “you give me chocolate chip cookies and I will walk your dog”, nor is it just for individuals. It can be beneficial to businesses and nonprofits to help support the economy.
Bartering exchanges and credits have been known to increase business activity by 10-15% in some communities. Economic developers can make their businesses aware of bartering marketplaces that can save them money. Many are listed in the International Reciprocal Trade Association and the National Association of Trade Exchanges. BizX is a Washington State company that has 300 businesses in its network. Or you could just stay at home and binge watch the streaming series Barter Kings.
Negotiate a Better Business Attraction Package: If you have followed my career or read my blogs, you will be surprised at this idea. I am not a proponent of providing large financial incentives of taxpayer money to recruit a new factory or warehouse in a community. These incentives will create jobs in a community, but they will rarely recapture the investment or commit them to a community. But despite my opposition, attracting a business with financial and tax incentives will continue to be an accepted economic development practice for states and communities. (I often felt like Jake from State Farm where nobody was listening to me)
So, in addition to providing financial incentives, consider adding a community volunteer commitment. You can call it a “giving back” clause. In exchange for the financial incentives, the company will not only create a certain number of jobs, but they will also commit to a percentage of financial donations and volunteer time to local nonprofits in the community. Nonprofits have been hit very hard because of the pandemic. They have been an essential part of getting people through the pandemic. Volunteering and investing will not only cement a company and its employees to a community, but it will also be a critical component to rebuilding future generations. A company volunteer time off policy is a company that cares about their employees and the community where it does business.
Create and Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: The pandemic has not only introduced remote working to existing businesses, but it has also led to the “great resignation”. Many employees have left because of burnout but a great many employees have left to start their own business. Four million people resigned from their job in April 2021 and 32% quit their jobs to start a new business. Economic developers and their partners from the SBDC, Universities, Community Colleges, chambers, downtown organizations, libraries and financial institutions, to name just a few, should seek out and encourage makers, doers, and dreamers (MDD) and innovators of the benefits of entrepreneurship.
Studies show that 95% of the jobs are created by small business and 1/3 of the workforce is made up of artisan entrepreneurs. But before they jump into the world of self-employment, they should recognize the pitfalls. This is where an eco-system should support entrepreneurs with a program of building blocks that includes technical assistance, education and training, access to capital, mentoring and networking (TEAM). Economic developers should be supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs and leaders. Innovation has no value at all unless it is pursued by entrepreneurs. So, if you want to have a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem, community leaders should create and provide resources for the people that are going to be the backbone of your community for the next 50 years. Want some new ideas to start, grow and rebuild your entrepreneurial economy throughout the year? Check out the excellent Washington website of programs and resources at mystartup365.com.
Redesign your Business Retention and Expansion Program: The pandemic has made an economic developers business retention and expansion program even more important. Since businesses are the main source of revenues and jobs, a high priority needs to be placed on their retention. Many economic developers have moved away from the one-on-one meetings that were the backbone of many BRE programs. But remote working and zoom encounters have offered new opportunities to reach out to more local businesses so economic developers can listen to their needs and provide solutions for them.
Recommendations of reducing expenses through bartering, local investment networks, renegotiating leases, grant writing assistance, buying local, leveraging social media marketing, adding value to a product, simplifying procurements, forming partnerships with other businesses for discount purchases, and diversifying supply chains are just a few of the suggestions that may help a small business that they may not have considered before. Most of these are ideas that the economic developer already knows. Commit to contacting a certain number of businesses each week and follow up with substantive recommendations and assistance. Or coordinate a CEO business roundtable to consider other best practices that can be shared. One more key recommendation to be included in remote retention is to create a master disaster plan for businesses and share it with them. Include ideas for mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Once in a lifetime disaster does not mean what you think it means.
Quit worrying about not being able to fulfill your new Year’s resolutions and start thinking about doing some things differently in your economic development strategy. These 5 ideas are not just new ideas waiting to be tested. They are better ideas which many communities have implemented and seen businesses start, retain, and grow over the past two years. These ideas, like babies crying in church, should be carried out immediately. Not that it matters but I am sure the CDC would say so as well.