Retooled Websites - Help Ease the Location Search
Communities are reacting to site selectors' needs by posting solid data on their websites as well as incorporating GIS and other interactive capabilities.
Phillip M. Perry, Staff Editor, Area Development (Jun/Jul 07)

Maybe you're planning to track down a great location for your new facility by surfing the Internet. And maybe you're dreading what lies ahead. If so, you're not alone. Everyone knows the traditional pitfalls of the Web in this area: economic and labor data posted in confusing form - when it's available at all - or presented with more regard for marketing than for vintage or pedigree.

Well, here's some good news. You may be in for a pleasant surprise. Many economic development organizations have retooled their websites over the past year to increase the efficiency of the site location process.

"I think there's been significant improvement in many community web sites," enthuses Dr. C.R. "Buzz" Canup, president of Canup & Associates, Austin, Texas. "We have been talking for several years about what kind of information should be posted and in what format. As a result, there has been a lot of work accomplished in the content area."

Three Trends
So how does this benefit you and your firm, specifically? You can expect to see improvements in these three areas:

• Regional thinking: More websites have expanded their vision beyond insular communities to embrace more holistic views of regional conditions.

• Interactive communication: New software technologies allow communities to respond efficiently to requests for customized information by site selection teams.

• Graphical packaging: There is continuing growth in the use of geographic information system (GIS) technology to present data in a graphical format that deepens the understanding of a region's benefits and drawbacks.

Consultants expect these trends to become more prominent in the year ahead. That's all to the good as the Web becomes more critical to site selection success.

"The Internet is the way the world works now," says Don C. Schjeldahl, vice president and director for the Facilities Location Group of The Austin Company, Cleveland. "We start every search by going to websites and getting basic information to help in the screening process."

Think Regional
No community is an island; every facility location is affected by forces that transcend political boundaries. Search teams, cognizant of how a location misstep can shave profits in a world of razor-thin margins, are charged with the mission of identifying and quantifying those very forces.

"In the past, we might qualify a community by the labor force and the unemployment rate in a defined political unit, such as five adjacent counties," notes Schjeldahl. "Today we often need to identify and qualify functional labor market areas that are usually irregularly shaped."

Schjeldahl gives an example: A client wanting to place a manufacturing plant needs 200 workers, half of whom will be machinists. One site under consideration is located near a highway interchange. The presence of a good road network suggests that the labor shed for the machinists will likely extend beyond the traditional political reporting area. In recognition of this reality, Schjeldahl will undertake a drive-time analysis: How many machinists live within a 60-minute commuting drive from the site? The answer will affect the client's profit picture because of the resulting salary impact: A wage of $15 an hour will draw machinists from one functional area; a $20 wage will draw from a larger one. Thus, communities hopeful of landing new business must present themselves in a way that facilitates this kind of regional analysis.

"Economic development organizations are seeking to differentiate their communities from others," notes Mark J. James, president of Powell, Ohio-based ED Solutions, a firm specializing in the application of technology in the economic development profession. "One of the ways you do that on the Web is through the provision of greater amounts of, and more specific data about, a location." From the standpoint of the site selector, of course, regional efforts reduce the tedious search through an array of isolated, self-interested sites that too often present incompatible and stale data.

More sites are getting the regional message. Schjeldahl points to the example of the Victor Valley Economic Development Authority (VEDA) in southern California (www.victorvalleyca.com). Here, five communities that once might have promoted themselves independently have joined forces for the greater good. "You have to hand it to these guys," Schjeldahl says. "They took the plunge and are working together."

Launched in late 2005, the VEDA site shows how regional cooperation can help when an area faces the challenge of rebounding from a crisis. "The main economic driver for our site was the closing of an Air Force base in the early 1990s," says Collette Hanna, VEDA's business development manager. "Some 7,500 jobs were lost and there was a huge impact to the entire area. VEDA was formed to revitalize the region and bring back an economic engine. We saw the need to market ourselves as a region.as a logistics hub."

Another regional effort is Team New England, which consolidates the economic development efforts of six states at www.teamnewengland.com. And cities such as Kansas City (www.thinkkc.com), Oklahoma City (www.greateroklahomacity.com), and Louisville (www.greaterlouisville.com) are presenting their profiles in the context of larger regions that extend beyond political boundaries.


Get Interactive
Posting solid data is one thing. Anticipating the idiosyncratic needs of hundreds of site selection teams is quite another. Enter the need for communities to efficiently respond to visitor requests for specialized data.

"We are seeing a greater ability to customize the website experience to individual needs, as opposed to the old style presentation of single tables of data," reports James.

The Internet also facilitates the rapid fulfillment of user requests. "In the old days communities would compile the data we requested and send it by overnight package or e-mail the information in pieces," adds Schjeldahl. "Today, though, more communities are able to post the data in a password-protected website. We can then go to the site and there is our stuff, and no one else can see it."

Victor Valley, for example, has adopted a software package targeted primarily to communities in the 30,000-150,000 population range. This program includes an online proposal tool that allows communities to prepare individualized web pages for clients. Data requests can be updated in real time in formats that can be quickly accessed by users. "The program allows site selectors the opportunity to collect information in a proposal format that has been customized just for them," says Hanna. "We send the developer an e-mail with a link to a secure web page which displays his report."

The software also allows the presentation of discreet sets of data in a consistent form, adds Hanna. "Each city can upload data in real time for its own section of the website, while the final result appears to be seamless to the outside viewer."

Picture This

The growing presence of geographic information systems (GIS) technology allows communities to present their data graphically. "GIS allows the presentation of data in a format which helps viewers see and understand a lot better than if they were only studying tables," says Canup.

GIS allows you, as the user, to obtain a more refined insight into a site's potential. "The user who locates a promising site or building can then ask, `Now that I have identified a spot on the planet, tell me about the labor in a 50-mile radius,'" explains James. "Or a retailer might ask about effective buying income in a given radius."

Graphics can communicate other information that might not be available in a data table. "Someone might find a promising 40,000-square-foot building and see that it is within a half mile from an interchange so company trucks can get in an out easily," notes Schjeldahl. "But then he might notice something: `Is that a school two blocks away?'" The discovery of a possible complicating factor would likely not have been revealed in columns of statistics. In short, GIS systems can replicate much of the valuable insights that site selectors normally obtain by physical visits to proposed sites.

GIS has become more prominent as it has become more cost-effective. "While GIS at one time was very expensive, today it's maybe a tenth of the cost of a decade ago," says Canup. "And the software is more user-friendly." A process that once required the creation of mathematical formulas has become a matter of point and click. "The more user-friendly it gets and the lower the price, the more often it is used," he adds.

GIS technology is not confined to community-sponsored sites. Indeed, many consultants will start with a nationwide search to locate a facility of a certain kind, and then pursue more information about the community in which that facility is located - thus the great success achieved by the GIS-driven databases such as FastFacility, developed by Area Development magazine. (www.fastfacility.com). This resource of available property and buildings offers customized, confidential, free access to site and facility planners.

Fast and Good
In these and other areas, consultants and site selection teams are benefiting from greater understanding of their needs by economic development organizations and advances in technology that allow communities to provide the data requisite to good site decisions. Such advances, of course, are not universal, and there are still lots of potholes in the information superhighway.

"While many websites have made improvements, you still must be wary," warns John Rhodes, senior principal at Moran, Stahl & Boyer, a national site selection consulting firm. "How good is the data being offered at some sites? Very often it is old, and in the time that has passed since its collection, the world has changed radically."

"The biggest issue about websites is that they need to fulfill two purposes," reflects Ed McCallum, senior principal at McCallum Sweeney Consulting, Greenville, S.C. "The first is the marketing function of the owner. An economic development organization's primary mission is to sell. In contrast, the the primary mission of a consultant or company is to pick the best possible location, which requires in-depth research. As a result, the second purpose of a website is to be informative and accurate."

In many cases, the motives of website sponsors conflict with your aims as the end-user. Marketing and objectivity can sometimes be at odds. But, to the extent a website can balance the need to promote with the need to provide solid data, the presentation will be more useful to your site selection team, and the community will obtain the variety and number of employers it deserves.

Improvements in Internet technology, however, carry a downside. With greater ease of access comes the desire for speed, and clients start expecting immediate results. "At a time when location decisions are becoming more complex, and we are digging for more information than ever, our clients are giving us less time to complete our work," notes Schjeldahl. "The Internet has driven this change in our society across the board. Everything is mobile now, and there is no excuse for not being on top of things."

As communities heighten the sophistication of their presentations and woo site selection teams with interactive tools and customized information, the press for results will only become more intense. Schjeldahl laments, "There is no rest for anyone today."