Local economic development offices and a cadre of volunteers are turning up the heat on regional economic development through a unified outreach tool. Business First Greater Richmond, a collaboration between the Greater Richmond Partnership and economic development offices in Richmond, Henrico, Hanover, and Chesterfield, sends volunteers into the business community with a standardized survey. Responses are funneled back to local economic development staff so they can help businesses navigate permitting processes, collect market information, and address workforce needs. Business First Greater Richmond, a collaboration between the Greater Richmond Partnership and economic development offices in Richmond, Henrico, Hanover, and Chesterfield, sends volunteers into the business community with a standardized survey.
Karen Aylward, assistant director for economic development in Chesterfield County, says using the Business First framework allows a broader perspective for everyone. “As we look at aggregate data, we can see opportunities and needs as a region,” says Aylward, noting that in thepast there was consistent frustration in the business community with the high cost of airfare at Richmond International Airport. As a result a regional approach was taken to attract and retain low-cost carriers.
While the local development offices collaborate on regional issues, the survey brings attention to local needs as well.
In Chesterfield, Aylward has seen significant benefit from Business First in the county’s sports tourism. Two first-class sports facilities attract national tournaments and international visitors. Several years ago, area businesses were not prepared for the influx of 10,000-plus visitors for weekend tournaments. Restaurants and gas stations were running out of food and gas.
“Our Business First volunteer team called on businesses within a five-mile radius of SportsPlex,” Aylward says. “We gave them a six-month look at what was coming up. They need to be plugged in and aware of opportunities to take advantage of them.”
Tommy Miller, the existing business manager for the Economic Development Office in Hanover County, has seen that Business First benefits businesses and the county.
“We have a manufacturing sector that is taking off,” says Miller, noting the expansions of Marooka and Delta Pure. As their specific needs were identified through Business First, state resources were leveraged to support their manufacturing hiring and international marketing requirements respectively. In Richmond there is a wealth of opportunities and needs that come to light through Business First. Sheila Shepperson, a project manager in the city’s Department of Economic and Community Development, connects businesses with information ranging from foot traffic statistics to permitting and zoning information so that businesses will know the opportunities and costs prior to investing any capital. In addition to the steady residential growth that has been changing the business environment in Richmond, Shepperson sees big opportunities on the horizon.
“We have two major projects: the Redskins training camp and the World Cycling Championships in 2015. That’s something that I can see us helping businesses prepare for,” says Shepperson. “We have a wealth of resources and resource partners; our job is to make sure businesses know who they are and how to access them.”
Throughout the metro area, Business First provides a consistent format for localities to communicate and engage with businesses.
“If you’re not talking to existing customers you’re going to lose opportunities,” says Gary McLaren, executive director for the Economic Development Authority in Henrico County.
“If companies have concerns or issues, we put them in touch with the right department or state program,” says McLaren. Those issues can be the need for a crosswalk from an office park to a restaurant or improved Internet service. “We’re the touch point for a lot of businesses. We take that role very seriously.”
Used by permission of Grid magazine