March 21, 2007 Edition

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Survival of the fittest:
recruiting industry to LawCo.

By Junior Briner
and Brett Cooper

Toyota's recent decision not to locate a plant at Marion underscores a very important point: industrial recruitment is not for the faint of heart.

Extensive time and resources, not to mention hope, were invested in the attempt to lure Toyota to Marion, but at the last minute the auto manufacturer opted for a site at Tupelo, Miss., which was not even known to be in the running. It was heartbreaking for our region. It was also par for the course in the game of industrial recruitment.

Competition for industry is not just intense; it is brutal. This is one of the biggest surprises people face when they become involved with their chamber of commerce. From the outside it appears that attracting jobs to an area must be something like picking apples off a tree. The reality discovered by those involved with the effort, however, is vastly different.

It is critical that we all understand how very challenging it is to recruit new industries to Lawrence County. Once we grasp this, it is even more critical that we respond properly to the challenge. Rather than giving up or pointing fingers, we have to join together and do the things that must be done to make our county an effective competitor on the industrial front.

First, the reality. Lawrence County has some powerful assets in recruiting industry. Two major railroads, three U.S. highways and an impressive airport are all here. There are good public schools, a thriving four-year college and a fine community hospital. The workforce is reliable and productive. The list could go on.

It is easy to look at these great features and think the battle is won ~ or should be won ~ to recruit new jobs to our area. Unfortunately, convincing today's manufacturers to locate here is nowhere near that simple. Communities across the country are pulling out all the stops trying to recruit the same industries that we are, and there are many, many more communities needing jobs than there are factories looking for homes.

The simple fact is that our assets in transportation, education, etc. are still not enough to give us the advantages we need in such a fiercely competitive environment. They lay a great foundation, but there is more work to do if we want to attract the kinds of jobs that will allow our children to raise their families here.

Here are some of the things we all have to do in order to make the county attractive to industry:

Be a cheerleader

Marion has responded the way it should to its recent disappointment. It is picking itself up and getting right back into the battle. Marion has a great site, and it will eventually land an automotive plant. Setbacks are part of this fight, and the communities that come out on top remain optimistic and keep pushing forward.

Be aware that when industries scout an area, they quietly send in representatives to gauge the attitude of the community, and this has much bearing on their ultimate decision. So, when someone asks you how things are going in the community, be upbeat! It is no exaggeration to say that your comments could make or break us with a prospective industry.

As we've already noted, Lawrence County has much to be proud of and a lot of qualities that are attractive to employers. We just have to believe in those qualities ourselves in order to sell them to others.

Be progressive

We are not recruiting the same industries as we did in former times, because those jobs are headed overseas. The new jobs are higher skill and higher wage, which is great, but those industries are holding communities to a higher set of standards. Companies today look for charming, comfortable communities for their employees. They want to locate in areas with parks, trails and pretty neighborhoods. They are looking for community pride.

Beautification and quality of life matters are crucial. Issues like cleanliness, landscaping and mosquito control take on a whole new importance. All the cities in Lawrence County have beautification ordinances, and it is now imperative that these ordinances be enforced to their fullest.

Be ready to invest

Other states and communities are providing huge incentives to bring in new jobs (Toyota is getting nearly $300 million to locate at Tupelo). We may well be required to provide incentives to land industries, as well, and they won't come cheap.

One prospective manufacturer that considered Lawrence County recently asked if we would build an expensive museum of the company's history, as well as provide big incentives for the plant itself. Communities in other parts of the country said they would do so, and the company said flatly that if we couldn't do it, further discussion would be a waste of time. Suffice it to say, the company located elsewhere. Such is the nature of the task at hand.

Be supportive of your
Chamber of Commerce

Folks at the chamber are working diligently behind the scenes to lure industry to Lawrence County. This work is seldom seen by the public, however, because nearly all industrial prospects are obsessively secretive. In fact, our economic development committee is usually asked to sign confidentiality agreements before they begin dealing with a prospective industry.

The amount of paperwork and leg work involved to even get the ball rolling with an industrial prospect is staggering. Site assessments, utility considerations, evaluations of the workforce, etc. are required for each and every industry that considers Lawrence County, and it is the Chamber that does this secretive and often thankless work.

It is ironic that in the toughest economic times, when the work of the Chamber of Commerce is most critical, many trim their budgets by cutting their support of the Chamber. That is actually the time when the Chamber is in greatest need of resources to fuel the industrial search.

And remember, the chamber doesn't just need money. It also needs people, volunteers who can give of their time and energies to make this an even better place.

Above all, be united

The Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce means just what its name implies, an organization dedicated to building the economy of the entire county. A rising tide lifts all boats, which means new jobs anywhere in the county benefit everyone, from Ravenden to Sedgwick and from College City to Strawberry.

To compete effectively and bring jobs back to our county, we all have to pull together. Every community has differences and disputes within, but the ones that move forward look beyond their disagreements and find a way to function as a team.

We have to develop partners, inside the county and out. We may not have all of the workforce or other resources needed for a given industry, but partnerships across the county and across the region can make the difference for us.

We have a choice. We can lose ground as we fight among ourselves, or we can move forward as a united county. It really is that simple.

All aboard!

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