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Commentary: Economic developers can spark growth

Phil Hardwick
Dolan Media Newswires

New Orleans — Many architecture and engineering firms are turning to the economic development field to grow their businesses and manage customer relationships. The same can be said for legal and financial firms involved in major projects.

But what the public probably does not realize is that such projects require myriad complex activities that are rarely reported or understood. Developers and project managers contract out much of the work to outside professional firms that have expertise in a certain area.

Contractors manage and coordinate the project, architects design the physical space, investment firms put together financing and law firms tend to legal aspects.

The increasing involvement of government agencies in the development process has created a need for someone who understands the entire process and has the contacts to find new business.

There is hardly a major project that gets done without some type of government incentive, whether it is a tax break, financing inducement or new road. What better person than an economic developer for such a position?

The first thing a firm should consider is why it thinks it needs an economic developer. If it is merely to increase business, then the firm would be better off hiring a self-starter from the outside sales world.

Economic developers are facilitators and relationship managers. They should be part of a firm’s marketing strategy, not viewed as the firm’s sales force.

The firm should also consider its government and public relations strategy and whether someone with economic development experience would be the right person for such a role. Some firms have found that it is advantageous to have such a person be the public face of the firm. That means sales calls, relationship management, testifying at public hearings and managing public relations.

A candidate for this position should be someone who is involved in economic development organizations.

Look for involvement as well as membership. For example, check out whether the candidate held any leadership positions.

Also, ask yourself what an economic developer would do for you that you cannot do for yourself. What skills would this person contribute that are not already present in the firm?

Finally, does your firm have the budget to support such a position? This is a position that will have above-average expenses when compared with other positions in the firm. It is, after all, a marketing position.

For certain architect, engineering, legal and investment firms, it makes good business sense to hire someone with economic development experience and expertise. As with any new hire, expectations and how performance will be measured should be clearly understood from the outset.

Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government.

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