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A Case for Regionalism...Thinking Beyond Your Boundaries

The concept of "regionalism" is often at odds with the mission and objectives of local economic development organizations. After all, most EDO’s are funded locally and it is only good business sense that your investment in economic development strategies should directly impact your city, county or territory. Economic development is also competitive, therefore, it is also human nature that an EDO would want to focus only on the win for their stakeholders.

But I urge our associates in economic development to look at all of the assets and opportunities that exist beyond their immediate and stated boundaries. Here’s why…

From a recruitment standpoint, regardless of the population of your city or county…prospects are interested in more than just the “site”. They are looking for a talent pipeline and workforce base that most often will come from a commuting area beyond your city limits or county lines. They are looking at nearby training facilities, diverse housing options and a variety of recreational and cultural offerings. In many cases, they are searching for a large market for their product or services. I promise you, they are not looking at your boundaries, only you are.

From an expanding business standpoint, many of the same issues listed above also apply. If your existing industries have the potential to grow...their current location may not have the ability to offer everything the company needs including additional talent, skilled labor, workforce training, housing and more. They are considering the infrastructure to get their goods in or out of their facility, the ability to attract a consistent workforce and the strategies to build a consumer market far beyond their city. They’re planning does not include a stop at the city limits. In order to keep them and help them grow, you will need to think beyond the city limits too.

From a start-up's point of view, many times, their market knows no boundaries to start with. While they may be focusing locally to build their customer base, they know that future growth will depend on expanding their brand, their promotions, their service or product offerings far beyond their city limits.

In a global market that has such an array of technology available for promotion, production, delivery and services…the days of recruiting, growing and protecting the treasures of economic growth in our own backyard are over. From the smallest of cities to the largest of urban areas, prospects are no longer interested in boundaries. They acknowledge that the incentives included in proposals may be tied to specific locations, but they have also indicated that the best and most attractive opportunities are those that include support from a regional level. They want to know that there is open communication between neighboring cities. They want reassurance that a workforce from an entire area can be depended upon. They want to be able to assure their employees that their lifestyle needs are available nearby.

I know…it’s incredibly hard for economic development practitioners to focus on regional initiatives if their boards and councils do not understand the need or benefits. But, you can’t be everything to everybody. If you don’t have an international airport, chances are, you aren’t going to get one now. If you don’t have an abundance of water, a miraculous source of water is probably not in the cards. If you don’t have interstate access, that may not happen in your lifetime (just ask the people who live on I-35 between Waco and Austin). But that doesn’t mean that you can’t broaden your scope to include the assets that you neighbors have. Or that your neighbors can’t do the same. It’s a win/win for all.

Synergy: syn-er-gy

(a) the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other

agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects;

Forget the football rivalries. We live in a global economy. From the smallest of projects to the rare and unusually large opportunities (think FoxConn & HQ2), the benefits of expanding your thinking beyond your immediate boundaries far outweigh the cost. The collateral value of regionalism can also include the following:

  1. Leveraged resources

  2. Bigger voice on policy issues

  3. Larger & more competitive footprint to attract attention

  4. Diverse perspectives for regional growth strategies

  5. Enhanced marketing that compliments the local efforts

Yes, economic development has been and will remain a competitive industry. But when you and your neighboring cities agree that what’s good for them is good for you (and vice versa), then that’s when the magic happens.

A case in point, in 2005, Hilmar Cheese was looking for a location for a new state of the art cheese & whey manufacturing facility. Amarillo, Texas knew that they did not meet the criteria. Dalhart, Texas knew that they had a very competitive site that met the criteria, but did not have the construction & engineering sources, the milk production or the workforce & training pipeline to support the RFP. The Amarillo EDC voted to financially incentivize the proposal based in Dalhart, which was located two counties and 85 miles away (much to the consternation of their citizens). Stratford, Dumas, Texline, Gruver, Sunray, Spearman, Channing, Hartley, Vega, Hereford and many other Texas cities supported the proposal with the promise of housing, workforce, milk production and ancillary services to the proposed plant. The cities of Clayton and Tucumcari, New Mexico, Guymon, Oklahoma and cities in southeast Colorado and southwest Kansas also were important cities that came into play when the parent company was making the decision of where to locate their next plant. Several states were considered, but it was the overwhelming commitment to regionalism that tilted the decision to locate the plant in Dalhart, Texas.

For those who questioned the financial commitment of the Amarillo EDC to provide actual dollars to the project…their ROI turned out to be more than tenfold in direct impact (i.e. actual $$$) on the construction, engineering, supplies, and labor provided by Amarillo companies. But more importantly, the Amarillo EDC knew that by locating a game changing industry in the region, that they would be the beneficiary of the supply chain companies that would want to locate near the plant. This visionary action proved to be true. Hilmar Cheese has completed more than three expansions since their location in the Texas Panhandle, which continues to benefit everyone located within 200 miles of the plant. Sidenote: More than 15 cities in the region (and almost all of the cities mentioned above) submitted site proposals to the company at the beginning of the process. They all worked extremely hard to locate the project in THEIR city. However, once the short list was announced…they all chose to embrace the opportunities that the project would bring to the region rather than wallow in the bitterness of defeat.

Collaboration: col-lab-o-ra-tion

the action of working with someone to produce or create something of mutual benefit

This is not an unusual scenario. It has happened all over the country. A common denominator in areas of economic growth throughout U.S. all involve successful regional initiatives. I am inspired by the many vibrant and dynamic regional economic development organizations that currently exist and are achieving great things for their collective stakeholders. (I have studied almost all of them). If you are not part of a regional economic development effort, I encourage you to join one. If your region does not have an organized regional initiative, then start one. It’s not as easy as I’m making it sound, but it is certainly worth it. I know a lot of people who can help you. Your regional involvement does not replace your local objectives; however, it can greatly compliment, compound and leverage your development efforts.

So let’s all think beyond our boundaries. Find ways to work together. True economic development cannot happen in a silo. As a kid, did you want to play in the sandbox by yourself or join the one that all of the kids were gathered in and having a good time? It’s a big sandbox and there’s room for everyone who wants to play. Let’s go!

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit” …Harry S. Truman

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