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Ranked #1: Highway Accessibility

Highway accessibility was ranked as the #1 factor by the respondents to Area Development's Annual Corporate Survey for a myriad of reasons.

Feb/Mar 06
Getting from here to there has never been easier. Still, many times I have driven past a field and marveled at what a great site it could be, if only the road access were better. In fact most of the land in this country, indeed any country, lies off the beaten track. But what is it about highways that drives our decisions about where to locate facilities?

Unlike gauging the quality of a fine wine, there are few generally accepted measures of site accessibility. Simply measuring a site's general goodness-of-fit on one or several criteria is not useful for specific projects. Lacking any standard yardstick by which to measure site suitability, each "taster" is looking for something unique. As a professional site selector, it is critical that I view properties through the eyes of my clients, and their projects. This means taking a critical view of site assets, in light of the risks they face in the course of their day-to-day business operations. Only then is it possible to make sense of the issue. Successful developers and communities understand this, and routinely consider different kinds of site-access needs when targeting property for industrial sites or parks.

Project Development
Good highway access helps ensure availability of a construction work force, and speeds the delivery of construction equipment and building materials. Meeting a project's development time line is critical for attracting or keeping market share, accommodating lease expiration dates, meshing with business consolidation, acquisition, or expansion plans. Delays, whether due to the weather, accidents, congestion, or road conditions can all have the same effect: missed opportunity.

Intellectual Capital
Keeping experienced managers, technicians, and production staff with the company during any transition to another site requires that they be able to get to the site with a minimum of inconvenience. If a remote location is involved, then linkages with the regional airport become critical. New hires and relocators alike will consider the perceived toll likely to be levied on their personal lives by a daily or weekly commute to the proposed site. In cases where clients have not been satisfied with the potential loss of key personnel, either new sites in the community have been considered or the community has been dropped altogether.

Inbound and outbound freight together can constitute a critical location decision factor. Indeed, many site selection projects begin by analyzing the supply chain issues, and if the potential impacts on operations warrant, high-risk sites or high-cost regions will be avoided at the outset. Oversized components or products are particularly difficult to manage. Highway conditions, intervening impediments to the smooth flow of vehicles such as development and or congestion, access to ports, and interstate highway interchanges can all play a part in the final determination of highway suitability.

Business Development
Marketing and branding are two sides of the same coin, and both are affected by a site's access. Consider the image a customer or a buyer develops when approaching the headquarters or the plant. A company can tout its position as the quality leader or the product innovator, but if the trip to the front door is out of sync with the company's vision, then the effect of the marketing program will be undermined.

Companies work hard to protect their investment in people and the workplace. In addition to assets maintained by the employer, local police, first responders, and fire fighters are on the Frontlines of this safety network. They need to be able to get to the site in short order. Property and casualty insurers also have an interest in this issue. Criteria for site accessibility, whether developed internally or overlain by insurers, will force the consideration of highway access to the front burner. Roads and bridges, overpasses, and intersections must be able to accommodate emergency equipment. Access times that fall outside the minimum criteria have ruled out sites for projects with significant capital investment.

Work Force
Problems in getting people from where they live to where they work and back, day in and day out, can motivate a company to consider a relocation. Tardiness, forced flex time, low worker productivity, and excessive demands on managers' time can eat into profits. When companies depart this type of environment for friendlier climes, good highway access is very high on their shopping list.

Too Important To Ignore
A typical site selection decision will address each of the above issues, whether the project is for a white-collar operation or a manufacturing facility. Within the limits of time and budget, every effort is made to screen out sites that increase these risks and to focus on more suitable locations. Initial screening criteria and site solicitations (RFIs) distributed to states and development organizations should contain specific guidance; however, if this is missing, then respondents should contact the company or consultant and request clarification. In the final analysis, the issue will be much too important to simply ignore.

If shortcomings are evident, highway access can often be improved to acceptable levels - if the community is willing to foot the bill - providing this does not jeopardize the project schedule. The most common shortcomings relate to near-site issues. Some fixes have included the addition of dedicated turning lanes, traffic lights, and widening stretches of the roadway. More complicated fixes have included redesigned rail crossings, and "flyover" exit ramps to achieve grade separation. Sometimes the fix has little to do with the highway itself, but requires a change in the local zoning ordinance to eliminate the potential for intensive development between the site and the interstate highway.

Given that railroads are operating at capacity in many parts of the country, the demands by industry to move goods over the nation's highways will only increase in the years to come. Highway access is an asset that is just too good to pass up.

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