Sweet (stay at) Home Alabama

COVID-19 is forcing economic developers to find new ways to promote the state.

Valerie Gray visits new-in-November Milltown Nutrition, part of the Chambers County “Shop Where I Live” initiative. Photo by Art Meripol.

For Valerie Gray, executive director of the Chambers County Development Authority, economic development has always been about more than just facts and stats. While those aspects of a sales pitch are obviously significant for success, she says when it comes time to close the deal, there needs to be a soft touch along with the hard data.

“The personal contact and relationships you build with companies and site-selection consultants has always been extremely important,” says Gray, who has led the CCDA for the past 23 years. “People like to do business with people who they trust, and thebest way to do that is through visits and networking and getting to know people. That’s really how you win a project.

“Technology is wonderful. We can do a Zoom call or look at drone footage or do a 3D virtual tour. But it lacks that personal touch. That’s what I miss most right now.”

The Shoals had one of the limited number of new companies this year as auto supplier Dura Automotive Systems began building. Photo by Cary Norton. 

That aspect of economic development is missing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only has travel been greatly curtailed for most companies, but it has become nearly impossible for organizations to offer the Southern hospitality extras, such as relaxing dinners at a local restaurant or trips to a college football game.

“When you can network with somebody in more of a leisure setting for a couple of hours, you can get much further along with your conversations,” says David Rodgers, vice president of economic development at the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce. “That’s what can set you apart in economic development, versus just having a transactional relationship with somebody. It’s challenging to not be able to do that.”

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It is a challenge that does not appear to be going away anytime soon. In fact, some aspects of this new approach to economic development might be here to stay, as businesses discover they can effectively expand into different markets without making as many in-person visits.

“There’s no question that COVID has changed the way economic development is done,” says Neal Wade, director of the Economic Development Academy at the University of Alabama and former director of the Alabama Development Office, which has since morphed into the Department of Commerce. “Those economic developers who understand that and adapt to the change and embrace it are the ones who are going to be the most successful. If recruiting is their major way of growing jobs, then they’re going to have to understand how to pivot.”

Photo by Cary Norton.

The biggest change is the reduction in travel, forcing an increase in discussions conducted remotely. Instead of site visits to a dozen or more locations for a potential project or expansion, companies are now handling preliminaries virtually and visiting only three or four sites. So, it is increasingly important for organizations to be able to effectively promote their region remotely.

“We’ve worked with Alabama Power’s GIS team (geographic information system) to create a virtual walk-around of buildings, and we’ve worked with our construction and engineering partners to produce 3D renderings,” says Jeff Traywick, vice president of economic development for the Birmingham Business Alliance. “There are a lot of good common tools that are already used by economic development organizations that can be tweaked for virtual visits. And while it may not be the flashiest, it still works well.”

Rodgers agrees. “We’ve had several companies do virtual site visits, and we’ve gotten to know some of them very well that way,” he says. “But it was a little awkward at first, not being able to shake their hand and look them in the eye and sell our community as a place to do business. That’s the culture of our business that’s been done for 100 years. To just take that away in a couple of months is a culture shock.”

Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield says the state is trying to mitigate that shock by helping organizations chart a new course through the turbulent waters created by the COVID-19 restrictions.

“We’re holding webinars for enterprises across the state on how to introduce different markets to them,” Canfield says. “We’re working with companies to help them develop their own website approaches to exporting some of their products.

“On the business development side, we’ve had a number of video conferences globally that have taken place because we can’t travel. We’re learning that we can still travel digitally and create a virtual conference and have discussions. It’s just not as personal.”

Eventually, companies will want to see the community in person, but the process will be much different. “In the past, we’ve had teams of 15 people come in for a visit, and we’d cram everybody into a couple of vans and take them around all day long,” Traywick says. “While site visits haven’t gone away, the nature of things has certainly changed. The visit comes later in the process, and it occurs with fewer people.”

In lieu of site visits, organizations are looking for other ways to promote their region. Kevin Jackson, president of the Shoals Economic Development Authority, says SEDA has ramped up its social media presence and started offering a remote-worker incentive program that pays people to move to the Muscle Shoals area.

Kevin Jackson, president of the Shoals Economic Development Authority. Photo by Cary Norton.

“We give them up to $10,000 to move here and work remotely,” Jackson says. “We have 25 participants this year from more than 500 applicants nationwide. We’re bringing in people from all over the country, mostly tech companies, who are leaving larger cities.

“We’ve also come up with more ways to present our information in video and digital format. Those two things have helped us stay ahead of the curve and be pretty successful. We’ve actually had more project activity since COVID than before. We’re in on at least a dozen projects and expect to make several announcements in the next few months.”

In Chambers County, Gray says the CCDA has teamed up with officials from neighboring Lee County to send gift baskets of locally produced products to companies and site consultants “just to let them know that our region is still here, we’re still recruiting.”

In addition, the CCDA has joined the national Shop Where I Live program, allowing the county’s small businesses to have a strong online presence. “We’re covering all the costs, so this allows our small businesses to have their own internet storefront for free,” Gray says. “If we can’t bring people to our community, then we’re doing things to take the community to them.”

Such innovative approaches likely will continue to be necessary for the foreseeable future, though the situation could change rapidly. Neal says he is advising organizations to create a strategy for the first six months of 2021, and then reassess whether those plans need to be altered for the latter half of the year.

“There’s going to be a new normal, and we don’t know yet exactly what that’s going to be. It’s still evolving,” Wade says. “But economic development is not going to stop. It’s a challenge, but it can also be an opportunity to get better in a different way. And every community has to figure out the best way to do that.”

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