Talking to people

photo by Sonny Abesamis

At its February meeting Ulster County’s Economic Development Alliance (UCEDA), the successor agency to the Ulster County Development Corporation, accepted a proposal from New Paltz-based consultant Peter Fairweather to devise a strategic approach to what Fairweather’s preliminary draft called “a much finer-grained understanding of the county’s true sources of economic competitiveness.” Central to his approach, Fairweather said, was “stakeholder outreach,” i.e. talking with business people.

Fairweather’s in-person presentation competed with one made on the telephone by the University of Northern Iowa Institute for Decision-Making. The out-of-town outfit promised to look for strong points after a thorough review of data resources, concentrations, training, educational resources and other assets, plus to conduct one-hour interviews with large employers.

It may well have been that the UCEDA board, whose mission is to be “the catalyst to promote Ulster County as the premier location to expand and grow business for the creation of wealth, to improve the quality of life and to foster strong, sustainable, diverse economic opportunities for Ulster County and its communities,” concluded that it would take the duration of the four-month assignment for the Iowa group to get up to speed on what Ulster County was all about. It took the board less than ten minutes of executive session to choose Fairweather’s proposal.

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“What’s our competitive advantage?” Fairweather asked.

The consultant conceded the county was no paradise for business development. It had few shovel-ready sites. When competing for the few outside prospects that were interested in the region, he said, “It’s all about the numbers, and our numbers are mediocre.”

Fairweather was equally frank in his evaluation of his home county. “It’s a strange little place,” he said. “That’s what makes it interesting. Its quality of life is unique.”

His approach would be homespun. His job was to find niche opportunities. He intended to ask successful businesses in the community why being in the county worked for them. “It’s all about relationships with existing businesses,” he said, “not about a gazillion-dollar ad campaign.”

The board members, whose authorization of a $100,000 campaign built around a glossy brochure touting the county’s glories was the centerpiece of UCEDA’s 2014 activities (with less than glorious results, it appears), didn’t react. None of their few questions contested what Fairweather had said, however.

Three-quarters of the $47,400 preliminary budget Fairweather outlined is proposed to go for 225 hours of Fairweather’s own services. “This is going to require a lot of footwork,” he told the UCEDA, “and I’m willing to do that.”

It’s a well-known tenet that the most of the efforts of economic development agencies go to the retention of existing businesses. The experts also recommend such agencies make frequent contacts with such businesses a continuing practice. UCDC once did that, but the practice atrophied.

It’s often too hard and too late to build a relationship when a business is in trouble or facing a critical decision. March Gallagher, predecessor to Suzanne Holt as county director of business services, was more extroverted and more aggressive in maintaining business relationships than Holt has been. Fairweather’s approach is likely to revive these efforts. Said Fairweather about contacts with successful local businesses, “They should educate us.”

No one at the February UCEDA meeting, not excluding Fairweather, mentioned Ulster Tomorrow, the county’s eight-year-old strategic plan for economic development. Though that document had its virtues, it has proven too diverse a tool to provide the kind of narrow focus the UCEDA is apparently now looking toward.

 

Fairweather’s project scope speaks to the importance of a “key leadership group” for implementing the revised strategy that will be created.

There are things government can do to encourage entrepreneurial activity. The best explanation I’ve seen of why most public programs to promote economic growth fail is in The Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Harvard Business School investment banking professor Josh Lerner. The book should be required reading for political leaders who have simplistic views of how government can and should help.

According to the UCEDA mission statement above, the agency is supposed to be “a catalyst.” This is as it should be. But a far deeper knowledge of economic activity may be required than the local decision-makers currently display. Lerner explains why governments “must balance their positions as catalysts with an awareness of their limited ability to stimulate the entrepreneurial sector.”

“Boulevard” should be requited reading.

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