Whats the best way to lure businesses to a community?
Mold it into a thriving place that requires no sales pitch, said Mark D. Waterhouse, one of three speakers who shared their expertise at a crash course in economic development Tuesday hosted by the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency at the Hilton Garden Inn.
About 70 local government leaders from Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties absorbed practical ideas about how to grow their communities into competitive products that businesses would choose over hundreds of others vying for their attention.
You want to make your location a competitive destination for businesses finding places to locate so that they will come to economic developers for help, said Mr. Waterhouse, president of the economic development firm Garnet Consulting Services, based in Connecticut.
To start his presentation, Mr. Waterhouse outlined the fundamental principles of economic development, which he defined as efforts to improve a community to make it more competitive for investment. He explained how todays economic growth model greatly differs from the way business was done in the 1970s.
Under the old industrial development model, economic development consisted of businesses starting in communities at the ground level. Manufacturing, which thrived during the 1970s and 1980s, was viewed as the economys backbone because it created jobs and products.
But under todays model, communities are generating more money from selling services than making products a 180-degree spinaround.
Services in general are the fastest growing sector in the country, Mr. Waterhouse said.
To that point, the U.S. exports $160 billion more in services to other countries than it buys from them.
Todays thriving sectors also include agriculture, government, education, retail and tourism. Startup companies also now have a robust presence, as a study from the Kaufman Foundation found that 6.4 million are generated every year one business for every 48 people.
How can a community make itself stand above the rest of the competition? First, its critical to understand that speed is of the essence because businesses are making decisions much faster than they used to, Mr. Waterhouse said. From start to finish, the average timeframe for a business to invest in a project is now about 12 to 16 weeks; 10 years ago, it was 18 to 24 months.
If a community doesnt have vacant buildings as potential sites for projects or zoning laws that are easy to navigate, prospective projects could hastily be axed. You better be able to respond quickly when you get a request for information, or youll lose the project to someone who does, Mr. Waterhouse said.
Because of the cost savings, about 80 percent of prospective companies seek existing buildings for projects, and 50 percent of them are successful at finding them. But while some communities have a glut of vacant buildings, not all of them may be equipped with modern features sought by companies.
Its a lot less expensive to retrofit a building than it is to build one from the ground up, he said. But they need to have functionality that meets the needs of modern companies.
Local governments also can simplify their zoning laws so that businesses can clearly evaluate whether a proposed project will be approved. Community leaders should take time to develop zoning exactly how they want it so theyll be ready to assist businesses eyeing the area.
If a community has three zoning types approved for a particular lot, seven that arent and the rest requiring special permits, it could scare away a developer seeking to have a project approved.
You dont want to have a project denied because you have regulations that dont make any sense, Mr. Waterhouse said.
Mr. Waterhouse said every economic development decision should be informed by a municipalitys long-term plan, which establishes priorities anywhere from 10 to 20 years into the future. If a project benefits the region as a whole and will stimulate economic growth, it could warrant approving a tax incentive.
A lot of people will say that companies will do projects anyway without a tax break, he said. Theyll do it, but theres a good chance it will be in someone elses community.
Presentations also were made by Wade Beltramo, general counsel for the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials, and R. Michael Ndolo, vice president of consulting firm Camoin Associates, Saratoga Springs.