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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.

Jun/Jul 07
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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. ( 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."

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