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Sarah Haston: Challenges in economic development today

Sarah Haston • Updated May 8, 2018 at 9:00 AM

At the end of April, I attended the Tennessee Economic Development Council spring conference with peers from all across the state, and I had a wonderful time. I learned about economic development opportunities from other communities in Tennessee. 

The greatest part of this conference is having the chance to meet and converse with people whose role is similar to mine in other cities, from across the state – from large, to small cities, both urban and rural. I heard about their challenges and struggles they are facing in their communities, as well as creative ideas and successes. 

There were a few topics that came up in conversations more than once and with several communities with which I spoke. They were workforce development with improving our local workforce, attracting young talent and engaging young professionals, and offering incentives in the competitive arena of new business recruitment focusing on private-public partnerships. Here are some thoughts with my interpretation of how these topics relate back to our community. 

• Local workforce: This is the No. 1 focus of any business looking to relocate or expand existing business and for our local businesses to sustain themselves. Every day I hear from a business that is struggling hiring people who are ready, willing and qualified to work. 

And unfortunately the predictions are that this issue will get worse before it gets better. Aside from the unemployment rate being low, there are a large number of baby boomers in the workplace who are and will continue to age out of the workforce. I personally feel we as a state and a community have began to address this issue with our Drive to 55 missions and making community college, as well as technical colleges, free to all. 

We do, however, need to continue to work as a community to encourage parents, educators and students to understand the value of education, how important it is to stay in school and look at the potential of each individual student, while understanding the workforce needs. We need to feel comfortable with aligning our educational efforts with the needs of today and help students start earning a livable wage based on their own unique potential. The world has changed with the advancement of technology, and so have our children. There is a need for high-skilled labor jobs that graduates of TCAT can earn $60,000 a year without a traditional college degree, and culturally we need to understand this shift in the realm of education and be open to discussing these opportunities with students. 

We also need to take some ownership toward workforce development as a community and bridge the gap between, local government, education curriculum and the needs of employers today so we can develop a strategy to make sure the future of our community can sustain jobs and have a healthy job creation rate. If we are going to continue to have conversations about moving toward more white-collar jobs with higher income levels, then we must continue to focus on making education a priority for our community as they go hand and hand.

• Incentives: The idea of having to have large, attractive incentives to be competitive with new business recruitment today is imperative in the world of economic development. The idea of corporate incentives for recruitment is not new, but the information out there today, and the full disclosure of the details of these deals is new and has stirred up some opposition on making incentives available. 

Amazon is a prime example of this. Ever since Amazon made the announcement it was looking for a second headquarters, city after city has thrown their names in with attractive packages, including millions of dollars in incentives. As Lebanon continues to grow and with its proximity to Nashville, there are opportunities for us with recruitment, and the question of incentives always comes into play. 

As the world has changed, so have the needs of today. It is more and more apparent we cannot put companies into a box and expect a traditional plan to accommodate their needs. They want something unique and something that fits their needs, it doesn’t matter if they are a manufacturing facility, a corporate office, entertainment facility or a large retail development… they are looking for the perfect fit and the perfect incentive. It’s part of the competitive nature of economic development today. 

As the retail world has changed and continues to change with ecommerce, it is more important than ever to be able to promote that Lebanon is open to discuss an opportunity of a public-private partnership with these developers looking at our area. 

No, we can’t do it for everyone. But if we have the right fit and we know the demand is there, the community wants more, and we have the funds to support it – why not? The truth is that our competing cities are willing to do it and we do have some existing gaps. The retail world has changed and there are only a few big box retailers in the market today that are growing. 

Lebanon is prime for these retailers and they are looking. The question is really, are we ready? Can we get out of the box and contribute to the development with incentives and help secure the retail needed? 

We want people to continue to find what they need here in our community with retail so we can collect sales tax revenue, have the jobs here and have discretionary income to spend right back into our community. 

Sarah Haston is economic development director in Lebanon. 


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