Friday, June 10, 2011

Exploiting the sweet spot

Consultant looks at Goochland
After at least a decade of pretending that Goochland has an economic development policy, the supervisors finally hired a consultant to craft a strategic plan economic development. John Rhodes, principal of Moran Stahl & Boyer, and his colleague Ellen Pemrick were retained for the task.

This firm, which has experience on both sides of the table, handling site selection for companies as well as assisting localities with economic development strategies, seems well qualified to guide Goochland into the 21st century. Heaven know we need the help.

On their initial visit, Rhodes and Pemrick gathered input from a wide range of stakeholders including land owners, business people, realtors, and school officials, the chamber of commerce, Rotary and the community at large. Rhodes, who has worked with other Virginia counties, had breakfast in Richmond with people who create jobs and attract new business on the state level.

The schedule for the initial visit was chock full of meetings. For instance, on Tuesday, June 7, Rhodes and Pemrick met during the day with a host of people, including each supervisor individually and the county Economic Development Authority prior to a public meeting in the evening.
They met with the planning commission on June 8 and a second public session at the Hermitage Country Club on Thursday, June 9.

Rhode’s basic presentation— he adjusts it slightly for each group—can be found on the MSB website at Click on information center” then on Economic strategies for smaller communities to view. The other reports in that section, especially Beyond Shovel Ready, are also well worth your time. Similar documents are part of the board packet for next Monday’s meeting, which can be downloaded from the county website under the board of supervisors’ tab.

Trite buzzwords like passionate and high energy do a disservice to Rhodes’ style, but that’s pretty much how he operates. He understands Goochland’s need to attract business while protecting its unique rural flavor. He knows finding the ideal mix will be a delicate task but seems up for the challenge.

Rhodes is a good listener and knows how to ask questions to get information flowing. He seems interested in everything that has to do with Goochland.

He tapped the EDA for information about Goochland’s existing industrial parks. Most do not have access to public water and sewer, which limits the type of businesses they can accommodate. District 4 Authority members John Joyce, owner of Down Under Limousine in the Old Dominion Industrial Park in Oilville, contended that many small businesses can function nicely with well and septic, but are crippled without access to high speed internet.

The discussion turned to broadband resources. Rhodes commented that the Richmond SONET ring, a dual direction fiber optic network that provides redundant capacity and enables high volume data operations to switch paths in the event of disruptions and ensure continuity of operations, is not a complete circle. Usual a clock face image, Rhodes said that the Richmond SONET ring does not cover the northwest quadrant of the region, which includes Goochland. This limits the county’s ability to attract a data center.

District 3 authority member Ben Slone, CEO of FML a software company in Courthouse Village, outlined the locations of high speed access in the county. He also explained that servers for his and other data intense businesses are located well to the east of Parham Road to take advantage of the SONET ring.

Rhodes explained that his job is to look at what businesses want versus what Goochland has to offer and sort down to identify the most promising possibilities and go fight for them. Matching county resources with needs of specific kinds of businesses seems fairly obvious, but for Goochland, it represents a significant attitudinal shift in tax base enhancement activities.

Goochland county administrator Rebecca T. Dickson said that one of the desired outcomes of Rhodes’ plan is to find ways for the EDA and Board of Supervisors to leverage each other and do what is necessary to attract businesses to the county and remove barriers to that process. That’s certainly a refreshing change in attitude!

Rhodes met with folks from Capital One, CarMax and other West Creek enterprises. He said that looking what works is an important piece of the puzzle. Going forward knowing which businesses work well side by side and which need to be separated is also important.

Speaking from a site selection perspective, Rhodes said that businesses narrow their final choices to five from among 3,300 counties and 900 metropolitan areas in the country is the normal process. They also tend to be in a hurry and want detailed information quickly.

Rhodes said that he found there are no ground rules for land prices in Goochland and there seems to be no average price. In some cases, parcels not served by public water and sewer are priced higher than those with utilities in place. He contended that it is hard to market land without knowing what the owners want for it. Landowners must be ready for business; companies will go elsewhere if you do not have what they want ready to go.

Joyce observed that business prospects want answers in 72 hours but in Goochland, it takes more like 700 days.

Virginia, Rhodes said, is already one of the premier states in the country to do business and Goochland’s location near its center, accessed by Interstate 64 and Rt. 288, puts it in what should be a sweet spot location. Goochland, he contended has some outstanding attributes including its beauty and the great character of its people. Goochland needs to know what it is, what is has to offer and who is interested in was a theme that Rhodes used often.

Gary Clower EDA chair District 4 asked what kind of business opportunities are out there right now.

Rhodes said that a fast growing segment of business use is a multitenant situation where many companies are in the same building or high density area and have access to shared amenities like conference rooms and perhaps data centers. Small businesses want ready to lease space and have no interest in developing raw land. Companies that want to build move quickly and seek property that is properly zoned for their intended use.

Rhodes said that he will make his report “with respect and love but not pull any punches.” He expects to present his recommendations in September.
The Tuesday evening meeting for the community at large drew a small but thoughtful audience.

People who live here pretty much like Goochland just the way it is and fear being overrun by what they moved here to get away from. They also acknowledged the need to sustain the quality of place while providing for the next generation.

“Goochland is gorgeous, Rhodes said. “The trick is how you grow the tax base to pay for needed services without selling you soul”
Rhodes’ focus is on opportunities near I64 and Rt. 288, exploiting the advantages for business growth on the edges of the county while leaving the interior untouched.

Several people suggested defining and developing “brand Goochland” to attract revenue generating tourism. While festivals and events do bring people to the county and heighten awareness of our lifestyle they will not generate a large and dependable enough revenue stream to fund county services. Nevertheless, this sort of activity should be encouraged.

Citizens seemed accepting of businesses confined to the edges of the county but rejected westward creep of fungible national chains that characterize Short Pump. Instead, they prefer unique shops to enhance the charm of the county and make it a destination. Such stores are charming, but they need a critical mass of customers to stay in business.

It would be nice to have one large destination retailer tucked away on a very small footprint in eastern Goochland where people from the entire region could come, spend their money to generate sales tax and go home. This is what happens every day as Goochlanders leave their sales tax dollars when they shop in Short Pump.

Among the negatives mentioned by citizens was the county’s perceived reputation as being unfriendly to business.

Some people, including District 5 supervisors James Eads, believe that spending $50,000 to hire a consultant to craft an economic development strategy is wasted money. However, Rhodes brings a nationwide perspective as a salesman and customer to Goochland, its assets and its problems. He has the resources and skill to craft a workable strategic plan for economic development.

Goochland must compete for business. An aggressive and intelligent marketing plan will help Goochland find the money it needs to pay its bills. We need to do this now, not at some vague time in the future.
The county does need its own economic development director. However, a county employee is beholden to the supervisors and may not have the objectivity of an outsider. The information and recommendations produced by Rhodes and his team will provide information and direction that could expedite the process.

The real concern is that the supervisors, who make the final decision on actions concerning economic development, will ignore Rhodes' plan and revert to wishing and hoping. We know how well that has worked in the past.

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