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This Year's Top Honor Goes To...

Ian Scott on Monday, November 21, 2011 at 5:08:00 pm 

The November issue of Site Selection magazine hit my desk last week with this cover story headline: Texas Tops the 2011 Business Climate Rankings. Kudos to Texas for earning the coveted top spot on a high profile list from a respected publication. Impressive job creation stats, sound tax climate and serious tort reform efforts; seems to me like the Lone Star State earned this one the hard way. Texas was trailed this year by 2) Georgia, 3) North Carolina and 4) Virginia.

The same four states occupy the top spots on CNBC’s 2011 Best States for Business ranking, but in a different order:  1) Virginia, 2) Texas, 3) North Carolina and 4) Georgia.  Forbes hasn’t updated its Best Business State rankings this year but in 2010 Utah took the top spot followed by Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado.

Best business tax climate, according to the Tax Foundation, is South Dakota. Best legal climate for business, according to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, is Delaware. Best educated workforce, according to CNN Money, is Massachusetts. I could go on and on.

A quick scan through ads in Site Selection (or many regional chamber websites) reveals just how much stock is placed in these kinds of rankings. Regions build their brands on them, politicians build their careers on them and business publications build their business plans on them. You better believe that when I win best husband, son, brother, and employee of the year, I'm having that magazine framed and sending a copy to everyone I know.

I think rankings are useful in determining how you benchmark your state or region against others. But you have to look at methodology for the ranking to have any meaning. The best is only the best because of the judging criteria, so if you're in the middle of the pack and want to move up you need to know what specific policies and practices to emulate. If your state is at the top, celebrate the successes that got you there but don't ignore your blind spots.

For a healthy dose of perspective about rankings and how we use them in the chamber/economic development profession, I suggest you read Mick Fleming’s article from the summer 2011 issue of Chamber Executive, "From Where I Stand: My Short List.”  My favorite line from that piece:

 “…the real problem with the media obsession with rankings—publishers, pollsters and pundits know that we don’t really care to hear the rest of the story. We want the digested, synthesized and, above all short, versions of news and analysis.”

Tags: rankings; community branding, regional branding, business attraction, Economic Development

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Bloodless ED Takeover

Ian Scott on Friday, November 18, 2011 at 12:00:00 am 

The Chamber of Commerce of St. Joseph County in South Bend, IN announced last month that they will now lead business attraction efforts for the county. The move, jointly announced by the chamber and Project Future, the organization that previously performed this function, came after the head of Project Future accepted a role assisting innovation commercialization effort at the University of Notre Dame. Project Future will cease to exist starting January 1, 2012.

St. Joseph County Chamber president Jeff Rea said, “We are excited about these changes and believe they are in the best interests of both organizations and this community. This clarity and focus, the clear delineation of roles and responsibilities and the leveraging of key assets and resources, better position St. Joseph County for future prosperity.” The move creates a "one stop shop" for prospects and positions the chamber as the single point of contact for all business needs. The chamber previously led retention, expansion and workforce efforts.

“We still have a little heavy lifting to do," Rea added, "but it’s a move in the right direction and we really are seeing the community start to rally around the effort.”

Read more about the merger here.

This is the latest example in a growing list of recent chamber-ED mergers.  Check out this blog post for other recent mergers – Chamber ED Merger Talk on the Rise – and look for an extensive cover story on this topic in the winter issue of Chamber Executive magazine.

Tags: regional alignment, south bend, business attraction, merger

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Six Key Points on Regional Cooperation

Ian Scott on Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 6:00:00 pm 

What can you learn in 2 days and 2 nights at a palatial estate in the Hudson Valley with a room full of smart, experienced regionalists? I'm sure glad I'm in a position to answer.

Last week I participated in a symposium on states and regions organized by the Citistates Group. The event was generously hosted by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and supported by the Carnegie Corporation and the William Penn Foundation. Citistates founders and 2009 ARS-John Parr Award Honorees Neil Pierce, Curtis Johnson and Farley Peters pulled together this ‘meeting of the regional minds’ to address one central challenge: metropolitan regions are the geography of the economy but not the geography of government.

Along with a couple of chamber leaders, I was joined by representatives from MPOs, COGs, universities, foundations, think tanks, and several former big city mayors. To articulate the professional accomplishments and accolades of this distinguished group of veteran practitioners and thinkers would easily run two hours or more. And it did. Thirty minutes into the introductions my suspicions were confirmed; I was the low man on the totem pole in both credentials and class. I just hoped a few of the collected IQ points might rub off on me.

From Wednesday evening through midday Friday we discussed and debated. What is the best structure to organize regional stakeholders? Can state governments help, or do they need to just get out of the way? Can you expect regional cooperation without a galvanizing crisis? Does the “ism” in regionalism turn people off? Can the Cardinals really come back with 2 outs and 2 strikes in the bottom of the ninth?

Scattered amid the discussion were some fantastic success stories from leaders in the field: Atlanta’s regional regulatory and infrastructure action to quickly solve an acute water crisis, Seattle’s alignment of two major ports and dozens of distinct municipalities to speak with a unified voice on international trade and investment recruitment. Don’t be surprised to see more detailed write ups of these success stories soon.

At the end of the day I left with renewed confidence in some core convictions about regional cooperation:

  • Business leadership is essential to regional action. Business groups are the only entities with political leverage across the multiple jurisdictions that comprise a region.
  • The outcome of regional action is far more important than the structure or governance of regional organization. As the Atlanta Chamber’s Sam Williams said, “Results and outcomes equal power and influence.”
  • Someone has to provide neutral turf to get suspicious stakeholders together. Whether COG, MPO or chamber, the regional convener role is vital.

I also picked up a few concepts that, while not necessarily new, are now crystal clear and I'm likely to repeat:

  • Economic competitiveness can be the great unifier for regions. The downturn has compounded our challenges but it has also provided a rallying point for individuals with different political affiliations and groups with different agendas – jobs, trade and investment.
  • We’re all the same, but we’re not. There is plenty of head-nodding and “me too” expressions when someone describes the challenges facing his region, but the context is always unique. Orlando is not Cleveland is not San Diego, but they can learn a lot from each other’s experience. That’s why I think detailed success and failure stories are as important (if not more important) than models.
  • Business can’t do it alone; it needs a strong public sector partner. I’m not just talking about public/private partnerships, I mean a visionary elected or appointed public sector leader willing to cross political divides and work with non-traditional allies for the common good. Almost every success story cited last week mentioned dynamic individual players from the public and private sectors. I should note here that Mick has said this to me dozens of times, but I really get it now.

Where does the learning and collected input from last week’s symposium go from here? I’ll leave that tough question in the capable hands of Neil, Curt and Farley. For me, I brought back a renewed conviction in the important role chambers must play as regional actors and the important role ACCE must play in equipping chambers with the information, connections and success stories to fulfill that role. Expect to see more…

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A Room Full of Iowans

Ian Scott on Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 1:30:00 pm 

How do you entertain a room full of 30-something Iowan transplants on a Thursday evening in Washington, D.C.? For the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the answer is simple: fresh pie, the Nadas and Templeton Rye. 

Last Thursday night I had the pleasure of joining a group of young professionals from all walks of life in a neighborhood in Northeast D.C. Most arrived as strangers but they shared a common link: Iowa. Granted, there were a few native Minnesotans and Nebraskans thrown in, but even they were Iowa-educated. 

They were drawn together by the Greater Des Moines Partnership-sponsored East Coast Living Room tour by the Nadas, a talented Des Moines-based rock band that has been a staple of the Midwest university scene since the mid ‘90s. The pie and rye (Templeton is distilled in Iowa) were gravy for the guests.

This is the second such Nadas tour the Greater Des Moines Partnership has helped throw. Last spring they did a West Coast train tour that inlcuded stops in Portland, Seattle and Spokane. Their goal: stanch talent drain by reminding native sons and daughters about the great professional and personal opportunities back home. For a talent-hungry region with low unemployment, is there any better strategy than luring returnees? Iowa housing prices alone would perk the ears of anyone living inside the beltway.

So what’s this North Carolinian's Iowa link?  I never turn down an invitation for drinks with Jay Byers.

Tags: Jay Byers, talent, workforce, Des Moines, events

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Energy Optimism

Ian Scott on Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 12:00:00 am 

Yesterday evening I joined the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber and the State Chamber of Oklahoma on Capitol Hill for their annual legislative receptions. Both groups brought great crowds of business and chamber leaders to DC. After the “great to see ya, how ya been’s,” many conversations with people from both delegations quickly turned to energy.

No surprise that energy is a big topic for these groups; Pittsburgh has long had close ties to the coal industry and there is an oil derrick on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol. But the conversations weren’t really about coal and oil. They were about nuclear, natural gas, renewables and all the attached economic and job opportunities with each. Despite all the reasons for pessimism about the economy, the folks from Pittsburgh and Oklahoma were decidedly optimistic and a lot of their optimism centered on energy.

Energy = economy is not a new formula, but it has taken center stage lately, including in the President’s Jobs Bill speech.  Here are some recent energy/economy headlines you should read:

From Reuters: US shale oil output set to soar - DOE panel report

From the Washington Post: Charlotte looks beyond financial sector in effort to become ‘energy capital’

From the Detroit Free Press: Natural gas touted as energy of future by ConocoPhillips chief

From ForbesIs Thorium the Biggest Energy Breakthrough Since Fire?

But the energy news has been bullish on all fronts. This week's bankruptcy announcement from solar-cell manufacturer Solyndra, to whom the Obama administration provided a $535 million loan, has left the administration with egg on its face.

From CBS News:  Solyndra failure draws attention to other firms

From the Washington Post: Obama green-tech program that backed Solyndra struggles to create jobs

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Most Inclusive Business Community in the Country

Ian Scott on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 3:40:00 pm 

Who has the most inclusive business community in the country?  The Charlotte Chamber wants to claim that title for the Queen City.

Last week they launched a new program called the Charlotte Minority Economic Development Initiative (CMEDI). The program pairs minority-owned business enterprises with corporate sponsors in a two-year mentorship arrangement.  Minority business owners gain exposure to the broader business community while also getting professional and technical support.  Already 13 corporations have teamed up with 18 minority businesses.  Read more here.

The program earned the Chamber some great coverage in the op-ed pages of the Charlotte Observer.   Writing about the kickoff event for CMEDI, columnist Ron Stodghill said:

“Last week's Chamber meeting at the Hilton Charlotte Center City was packed to capacity. As I stood in the back jotting a few notes, it was clear to me that Charlotte's business community is not only fully engaged, but that the city's best days may be just around the corner.

That is music to any chambers’ ears.  Read more here.

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Chamber-EDC Merger Talk on the Rise

Ian Scott on Wednesday, August 24, 2011 at 12:00:00 am 

Talk of mergers between chambers of commerce and economic development entities have dotted local headlines lately.

At a news conference yesterday, the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corporation confirmed they have finalized merger talks. An 11-member “unification committee” will present recommendations by Nov. 30 on how the combined organization will be funded and governed.

Also last week, The Indianapolis Business Journal reported that officials from the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce and Develop Indy are discussing formal cooperation. "I wouldn't rule out the possibility they could be merged," said chamber Chairman John Neighbours, a partner at Baker & Daniels.

These announcements come just weeks after the York County (PA) Chamber and the York County Economic Development Corporation approved an MOU to become affiliate organizations under a 501(c)3 parent corporation called the York County Economic Alliance.

Follow the trail of newspaper coverage for any of these mergers and you’ll find some common themes.  Chiefly, civic leaders believe that coordination is better than fragmentation, and major corporate funders are tired of writing multiple checks. I take this as a sign that the regionalism mantra has caught on and, post-recession, businesses expect more return from their civic investment.

Are chamber-EDC mergers a trend? The past month would suggest so, and there have been other high profile chamber-EDC mergers in the past few years: the Birmingham Business Alliance, the Quad Cities Chamber and Syrcause’s CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, for example. But there have also been some splits – Tampa and Albany, GA come to mind.

Are we destined to see more chambers and economic development entities joining forces, or is there a cyclical ebb and flow in regional civic leadership that brings players together then breaks them apart? Share your thoughts...

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A Chicken Dinner is not a Differentiator: My advice to Chambers of Commerce

Rebecca Ryan, Next Generation Consulting on Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 12:00:00 am 

In this post, guest blogger Rebecca Ryan from Next Generation Consulting recaps her remarks during the Competitive Regions of the Future panel at the 2011 ACCE Convention last week in Los Angeles.

Today I’d like to share my thoughts on three things: Winter, why I’m skeptical of regionalism, and the Halo effect that all Chambers need to stay relevant. I know, these things may seem completely disconnected, but stay with me...

1. Winter

Let me try to put this current economic crap sandwich into perspective. It is Winter in America. And it was predicted.

In 1997, Strauss and Howe published The Fourth Turning. They predicted that around the year 2007, America would face a large national crisis. It could be a financial meltdown, a health pandemic, or - wait for it - a Tea Party. They weren’t sure what it would be, but they knew it was coming. How did they know?

Because it’s happened before.

Turns out, America goes through four distinct seasons. Like climactic seasons, America’s seasons are knowable and predictable. Here’s how the four seasons have shaken out most recently in America:

  • Spring started after WWII. Everyone felt terrific, the economy was booming. GIs were getting college educations. Hope was in the air. Traditionalists (b. 1925-1944) were kids or young adults, and Baby Boomers (b. 1945-1960) were just being born.
  • Summer was in full swing by the “Summer of Love.” Boomers questioned inequality and the status quo. People marched. And sat-in. And radicalized. Traditionalists - who were in charge - felt a huge “generation gap” between themselves and Boomers. Boomers were entering the workforce in full swing, and Gen Xers (b. 1961-1981) were just kids.
  • In Autumn, American society started to show signs of decay: gas lines, Watergate, the Iran-Contra Scandal, the Farm Crisis, spiking divorce rates. Traditionalists were starting to retire, Boomers were taking over, Gen Xers were joining the workforce, and Millennials (b. 1982-2001) were just being born.
  • Winter blew in with the 2008 financial crisis. Winter is expected to last for about 15 years, enough time for entire institutions to be reinvented, renewed, or retired. Boomers are entering their elderhood, Gen Xers are taking over as leaders, and Millennials are entering the workforce at full tilt.

To the untrained eye, Winter looks bleak. Things look dead, or frozen. In truth, winter is a time of great potency, when things hibernate in order to go through the necessary cycle of renewal. The grass will again push through the earth, and America will again enter spring. But not for awhile.

I believe that the communities that will come through this moment and emerge as winners in the next spring will be those that solve problems inter-generationally. It is absurd to think that Boomers - who are still mostly in charge in our communities - will be able to invent all the solutions required for their kids and grandkids to lead prosperous lives. What’s more, only 3 in 5 Boomers will be alive when Spring arrives. So the ethical thing is for Boomers, Xers and Millennials to work together to co-create the future…a future that the Millennials and the iGeneration (b. 2002-??) will inherit.

Look around your community and ask, ” Who’s at the Winter-to-Spring problem-solving table?” It should represent all generations.

2. Why I’m skeptical of regionalism

As I recently wrote for Madison Magazine, “I’m all for regionalism when it honors the unique strengths and assets of all the partners. But I choke when I see regionalism used to equalize all the partners. Like children, regional partners are not all gifted in the same way. You don’t make ALL your children take piano lessons (unless you’re the tiger mom). You assess each child’s talents and put each child in the way of further training and experiences that will help all of them become their best selves.” Read the full article here.

3. The Halo Effect

During Winter, unlikely actors emerge as leaders. We saw this happen in Birmingham, where the Birmingham Community Foundation stepped up and led the initiative for a city-wide park plan. They didn’t wait for the Mayor or the Parks Department. The community needed a plan for green space, and the Foundation stepped up and led the initiative.

I believe Chambers could step up and play a similar role in their communities. Because the truth is that our local businesses know they need to step up - and they want to step up - and they are begging for Chambers to help declare a direction. Businesses I talk with are aching for their Chamber to boldly move in a direction that will help their communities create more jobs, spark some economic energy, and be inclusive of all the economic actors. That’s what leadership is.

Can Chambers get out of their own way?

I was working with a Chamber last year. We did a competitive scan of their business environment and found that there were 14 competitors in the business networking space. There were five other organizations offering “CEO Roundtables.” And the local business journal is coming after their Business Expo.

I asked, “What’s the Chambers differentiator?”

The response: “We have the largest sit down dinner of business leaders in the five county area each fall.”

A chicken dinner is not a differentiator. It may be part of your work plan, but unless you have some kind of halo over that work - a heroic purpose to play in your community - you’re irrelevant. The barriers to entry have fallen. Now your members can link in, friend, or poke any of your members; they don’t really need your Chamber to make introductions. Now more than ever, Chambers need to have a valiant purpose underscoring their work plans. Chambers need a compelling, business-first strategy to help their communities face Winter.

Here’s one idea: stop talking about being in the ‘economic development’ business and start talking about being in the prosperity business.

We are in Winter. Regionalism is not The Only Answer. And your Chamber could be a hero in your community.

Go ahead, grab that Halo

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Attracting Entrepreneurs to Durham

Chaaron Pearson on Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 9:34:41 am 

From April 1 to May 31, North Carolina Research Triangle area entrepreneurs had a chance to launch their companies from downtown Durham for free, courtesy of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Durham, Inc. and Self-Help Commercial Real Estate.

The idea, called Bull City Startup Stampede, came from a conversation with Aaron Houghton, founder of Preation and co-founder of iContact. He thought more entrepreneurs should be exposed to Durham’s thriving downtown. He suggested giving Triangle-based start-ups a first-hand experience there, and the Startup Stampede was born.

The Stampede is an event consisting of 60 days of free space in downtown Durham complete with parking, office furniture and wi-fi.  Programming for the event was light but each week Stampede participants heard from successful Durham entrepreneurs on the ups and downs of launching a company.

At the end of the program, 15 startup business leaders gave their sales pitches. Three companies reached the product launch stage and all 15 who participated plan to keep working on their ideas.

A poll of Stampede participants found that 90 percent had a more favorable view of downtown at the end of the program, and 75 percent said they’d be more likely to launch in Durham again. “The Stampede was really about building awareness among Triangle startups as to what a great place Durham is to launch a company and the quality of the startup community here,” said Adam Klein, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. He said there are plans to launch Stampede 2.0 in the fall.

Visit the Startup Stampede website: http://www.startupstampede.com/
Visit them on Facebook: Startup Stampede
Follow them on Twitter: @startupstampede

Read more:
The Herald-Sun: Start-up Stampede comes to an end
The Herald-Sun: Durham startup pushing fitness program for busy executives
Triangle Biz Blog: Four to move from Startup Stampede to Bull City Forward
Durham Magazine: Startup Stampede rumbles along

Tags: Entrepreneurs

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Comeback Cities

Ian Scott on Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 12:00:00 am 

I don’t pay too much attention to the rankings and top-ten lists that litter the news these days. I think they are usually easy (lazy?) journalism, plus their methodology is often suspicious.

However, I did enjoy flipping through Kiplinger’s 11 Comeback Cities for 2011.  It’s not a ranking, it is not a ten best or ten worst.  It is simply snapshots of several regions that are well positioned for economic growth; music to every chamber’s ears.

  Not mind blowing growth, but pretty good considering job losses since 2008.  If you expect a list of growing US cities to be southeast heavy, you’re correct. Chattanooga, Nashville, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Charlotte, are the first five cities on the list.  There is also a big cluster of western cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix, Portland, OR, Seattle, and San Jose.  Flint, MI is the geographic outlier, and perhaps the most unexpected in this group. 

The absence of high growth cities from Texas, Oklahoma or other energy heavy states like Wyoming or North Dakota from this group is a little surprising.  Perhaps the Kiplinger folks felt those cities weren’t right for a ‘comeback’ list because they didn’t take as bad a hit in the first place.

Foreign investment is a common theme among this group of regional economies.  Whether its Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Siemens in Charlotte, Nissan in Nashville or European battery company ReVolt Technology in Portland, investment from abroad is aiding in recovery.  Predictability, health care, renewable energy and automotive are the other cluster themes that are mentioned as filling the jobs gap left by housing’s collapse.

Another common regional asset that jumps out when scanning this group – strong chambers of commerce!

Check out Kiplinger’s 11 Comeback Cities for 2011.

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