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Getting the Most Out of Your Economic Development Partners

In order for economic developers to help with your location decision, they need to know as much as possible about your company’s requirements.

Q1 2019
Courtney Dunbar, Site Selection and Economic Development Leader, Burns & McDonnell, spoke with Area Development about evolving market trends, following her presentation on the subject at our Women in Economic Development Forum. Interview conducted by Margy Sweeney, Founder and CEO, Akrete, Inc. and Area Development Editorial Board member.
When you’re considering new locations for an industrial project, details matter — and the details are growing in volume. Over the past 20 years, the number of site selection criteria used by industrial companies has grown from approximately 20 questions to as many as 70 different siting criteria. Clearly, industrial requirements have grown as industries like logistics, data centers, and advanced manufacturing have become more complex and sophisticated. The game is no longer one-size-fits-all.

From a details perspective, helping economic development agencies respond to your site selection requirements requires a careful balancing act. Economic developers need to know as much as possible about your requirements to provide a thoughtful response. Yet, many site selection executives hesitate to provide the full picture because of competitive concerns.

Site Certification Doesn’t Tell the Full Story
Initially, economic development agencies may present you with a list of certified sites. While site certification can distinguish sites on the basis of availability of services, documented site development capabilities, and assurance of permitting and build timelines, site certification is not industry-specific. That lack of specificity might have mattered less in a different era, but in today’s, not every certified site is going to work for every user.

Also, a site that doesn’t qualify for certification might nonetheless be viable for your project. For instance, a site might be in a good location with regard to many of your project criteria — but isn’t certified because of numerous wetland areas. A knowledgeable economic development agency or broker might be able to configure the site around the wetlands to make it marketable.

A better approach is to look for is site readiness, including full-site master planning and costs of mitigating contamination or other risks. Availability of services is important — but more important is the level of service. A site may have a major natural gas pipe within its boundary — but if the pipeline rights are owned by a neighboring factory, your company will need to add its own pipeline. An economic development agency typically will provide the number of electric power lines on a particular site — but will the lines provide the capacity your operations need? Will you have redundant sources of electricity? How quickly can you acquire the site? Can the municipality provide off-site infrastructure improvements?

Time to Get Creative
Another shortcoming of site certification is that it doesn’t capture the nuances of a particular site. An economic development team should be able to tell you — quickly — about issues beyond site certification that could affect your project.

A site may be zoned for industrial use, but adjacent sites may be permitted for schools, daycare, or residential development not compatible with industrial use. And, non-industrial neighbors may complain or even sue over noise or air pollution. Even rural communities may pose permitting risks — a nearby grain storage facility may generate large volumes of dust that could interfere with getting your air permit.

Also, don’t overlook master-planned sites that, at first glance, don’t appear relevant to your project. An enterprising EDO will have the foresight to see that a site planned for multiple buildings might work for the single large facility that you need, and will quickly provide the details about easements, wetlands, drainages, and other features that may determine whether the site could meet your requirements.

The More Intelligence You Provide, the Better the Site Options
Providing the right amount of information to economic development executives is a critical success factor in making a smart decision. The good news is that some economic development agencies have become much more adept at understanding specialized requirements for pad size, power, transportation infrastructure, and more. And, it’s fair to expect your economic development agencies to provide site information in an easy-to-read, digestible format rather than reams of data without relevant context.

A well-prepared economic development agency will be able to dig deeper to support your due diligence. The more they understand your industry, the better able they will be to optimize your site selection.

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