I am extremely honored to have received the International Economic Development Council’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” in absentia last week. I have received several awards in my life: 7th place in the 50-yard dash at Mark Twain elementary, the eternally late award from John Pershing Junior High, and the most likely to graduate without ever being kissed in High School.

But this award is more meaningful to me than all the others. The art of economic development is collaborative. So, to be singled out is flattering yet this honor was not just about my work for the last 30 years, but about a team that worked together for the sustainability of rural communities.

I was disappointed that I was not able to attend the conference and walk the red carpet with Carrie Underwood to receive the award in Nashville this past week. Given the opportunity to speak at the award ceremony, I would have acknowledged many, but not all, my colleagues who played an important role in my time in economic development. At least in this written format, there is no music to usher me off the stage, only the delete button which I will be unable to hear. And with this blog, there will also be lessons which I hope you find some value to pass on to the next generation of practitioners who will carry on the work.

Deborah Knutson introduced me to this profession 3 decades ago even though I had no knowledge of economic development. She recognized the importance of skill-based experience that could be transferred from my previous professions into a career in which she served admirably for decades. Her mentorship and friendship were essential to my newly adopted profession. Lesson #1: Hiring people from outside economic development introduces a different perspective and adds diversity to the profession.

I was also fortunate to have several agency directors. Space prevents me from naming all the directors I have worked under. There were a lot! But starting with Jon Roberts and concluding with Chris Green and Lisa Brown, they continuously encouraged the workforce to be innovators that made a difference and not bureaucrats that continue planning and doing the same thing year after year. Economic development needs to be able to pivot accordingly and their management skills for the department emphasized new ideas and strategic thinking. Lesson #2: Management should provide opportunities for employees to occasionally depend less on constant planning ad infinitum and more on continuous experimenting.

Making a difference in state government strategies and programs is not an easy task. Thinking outside the box requires employees to think differently, unconventionally and form a new perspective, something governments are often hesitant to undertake. It should not take a pandemic to rethink old ideas and how things can be made better. Lesson #3: Practitioners need to have a new consciousness to stimulate and sustain economic growth in their economy and not rely on ancient strategies that may not fit a communities needs or skills.

There are four individuals employed by the Washington State Department of Commerce that were at the heart of thinking outside the box and fun to work with as well. Karen McArthur, budget manager, made sure that whatever I did, was ethically and legally correct and she laughed at my jokes. Robb Zerr, a marketing/communication guru who brought his private sector experience, his brainstorming talent and unique marketing skills to our conversations and he laughed at my jokes.  Terry Lawhead, our resident contrarian whose passion for rural communities was exceeded only by the number of miles he drove to assist, and he laughed at my jokes. I think every rural area in Washington has his footprint and tire treads on their community and is a better place because of his work. And finally, Linda Alongi who had her hands and input on every success that came out of our program from our publications, our education and training classes, (especially the IEDC Basic course), her revenue generation methods and her implementation skills and didn’t always laugh at my jokes. (She got a pass because she was that good).  If it were not for Linda, the highlight of my career would still be the 7th place finish in the 50-yard dash. Lesson #4: Seek out people who are smarter than you, have a sense of humor, enjoy being creative and devote commitment to the community or agencies mission.

What made our work unique was the ability to work with our economic development ecosystem partners in each of our 39 counties. Commerce may have suggested programs and classes outside the typical ED box, but it was up to the practitioners on the ground to participate. Introducing Global Entrepreneurship Month, Economic Gardening, Front Porch Ideas, Mystery Shopping, Disaster Preparation for business retention, Community Survivors and Lemonade Day to communities was successful only because of grass root support and implementation. They deserve the credit. There are no such things as million-dollar ideas, only million dollar executions. Everyone says that their economic development partners are the best in the world. But I won this award so it must be true in Washington. Lesson #5: Create a culture of recognition and make it a cornerstone of effective management and a component of a successful strategy.

The longest running education program in the Northwest is the IEDC Basic Course, otherwise known as “the Games”.  If you lived in the Northwest and entered this profession in the last 30 years, you probably attended “The Games”. But without the partnership that developed between Business Oregon and the Washington Commerce Department, this course would never have attracted the more than 3000 graduates from not only Oregon and Washington but also from Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Alaska, and British Columbia.   Carolyn Meese, Jill Miles and Dennie Houle, all exceptional practitioners and educators, recognized that the education and training of our practitioners was not a competition between states but a partnership. The relationships that developed between practitioners from different states resulted in numerous economic development successes and even a few marriages. Lesson #6: Education is not just about scholarship.  It’s about successful adulthood and recognizing best practices from others that you meet outside your area.

And finally, I would like to thank the IEDC, especially Jeff Finkle, for all the work he and the organization have done to provide knowledge and assistance to communities and individuals.  The IEDC’s work, was “not about the filling of the pail but the lighting of the fire”. I am grateful that the IEDC, under Jeffs leadership, continued to stoke that fire with Technical assistance, Education and training, Access to capital, and Mentoring/networking, which coincidentally has the acronym of TEAM. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Lesson #7: Take advantage of attending national organizations meetings and conferences. They are an essential part of being a successful economic developer. (And you may even win an award to share with your community)

Working in economic development has brought me an amazing gift that has culminated into something that cannot be matched. Something magical and wonderful in the form of knowledge, friendships and humor that will continue to last a lifetime. I am not sure that I really deserve this individual award. But I also have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.

Ignored the biz, Liz

Raised the tax, Max

Wrote a bad reg, Meg

Needed more space, Grace

Limited talent pool, Jewell

Cost of living high, Guy

Supply chain broken, Logan

Can make more money, Honey

Dearth of trained labor, Kramer

Regulations too complex, Rex

Cities have less appeal, Neal

Downtowns are dead, Fred

Location matters less, Wes

Poor political climate, Wyatt

Inadequate childcare, Pierre

Shortage of cultural art, Bart

Too much crime, Einstein

This song may not be a hit among music lovers, but economic developers can appreciate the effort it takes to retain a business. It is why it is important to make sure a communities business retention program reaches out to its businesses regularly and invests in solving their concerns before they “engage in discussions” with the competition.

If economic developers want to minimize the loss quality businesses, here are 20 ideas/plays that will help dismiss any notion of businesses leaving.

  1. Treat businesses with respect and schedule regular formal visits
  2. Celebrate business milestones.
  3. Coordinate CEO business forums to discuss common issues
  4. Write personal notes to businesses thanking them for being a part of the community
  5. Assist in efforts to promote businesses in social media
  6. Create a low interest loan fund for small businesses that want to expand
  7. Pay attention to number 5
  8. Made you look that there is no number 5
  9. Prepare businesses for any future disaster related changes
  10. Educate employers on succession programs
  11. Research regional supply chain opportunities for existing businesses
  12. Establish buy local initiatives that also promote local artisans’ products
  13. Provide grants to upgrade technology
  14. Encourage worker flexibility
  15. Support apprenticeships, internships, and mentor programs
  16. Bring business, labor, and community colleges together to close the training gap
  17. Produce a list of hidden gems in the community and promote them internally and externally
  18. Enlist small businesses to sit as board members
  19. Never shortchange the talent and importance of rural communities and its citizens

In the movie Castaway, for those of you who do not get the cartoon reference above, Tom Hanks crashes on a desert island. Following several failed attempts to get off the island, he lets out his frustration by “tossing objects around from FedEx packages, including a Wilson Sporting Goods volleyball”. Hanks draws a face on the ball, calls it Wilson and for the next four years, the ball becomes his inanimate companion. (SPOILER ALERT!!!) After 4 years of friendship and camaraderie, the ball gets lost in the ocean. Was Tom Hanks sending Washington a message?

Football players will continue to be attracted to relocate to other teams. But communities that have a comprehensive business retention program that focuses on business satisfaction is the most effective game plan a community can have.

Super bowls are a once in a lifetime accomplishment. But a good business retention strategy will be a Super Bowl for life.