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Site Selector took TVA two years and $1 million

High-tech tool helps economic developers get more info faster

In today’s need-to-know-now society, economic developers are driven to provide prospective companies more detailed and diverse information almost at the speed of light.

Luckily, for those developers in northeast Mississippi and the rest of the Tennessee Valley Authority region, the right tool has come along just in time, said Steve Summers, manager of business and technology development for TVA’s Economic Development division.

Unveiled last fall for the TVA’s eight Regional Industrial Development Associations, Summers said the economic development information system, dubbed Site Selector, will virtually revolutionize how those RIDAs help their local chambers of commerce and industrial development authorities gather information on everything from transportation infrastructure and employment and wage statistics to virtual tours of available buildings.

By integrating data with a geographic information system, Site Selector can even give detailed data on rivers, highways and airports and even plot power sources. Using the Standard Industrial Classification code, a client can also locate potential suppliers and customers in the region.

Although many organizations already use a variety of computer software-based and technology-driven systems to gather and disseminate data, Summers said Site Selector is the wave of the future and could become the envy of other economic developers around the country.

“I think our’s is the next generation,” he said. “It’s ahead of other things out there.”

One distinct advantage of Site Selector over many existing systems is the ability to continually update the system with the most current information. Too many of the systems in use by economic development offices are purely “marketing systems” to sell regions to prospects and oftentimes the effectiveness of gathering information is determined on how quickly and efficiently staff can physically gather information.

Site Selector is more and does more.

“Ours is a working tool for RIDAs and the field offices,” he said.

In the beginning

Starting in 1995, Summers and a team of a half-dozen TVA specialists began developing Site Selector. The system, which is still being modified, has cost nearly $1 million. Developing information technologies, competition for new industries and the abundance of data were all converging to make Site Selector a necessity and possible, Summers said.

The system combined nearly 20 separate databases and 10 software applications into one system that is easy to operate and even took a few developing technologies often used in other areas and put them at the fingertips of economic developers.

The most notable of these are “photo bubbles,” a computer software technology that allows for a 360-degree view of building interiors. Although not new, Summers said he was unaware of it being widely used for this specific purpose although prospects looking for existing buildings nearly always need to see the inside. Depending on the size and configuration of the building, Summers said using several photo bubbles a person could view nearly the entire building and never have to go on site. Summers said the system has around 1,000 different sites from around the TVA region and “hundreds and hundreds” of photos all taken by TVA staff using digital cameras.

Tom Stennis, executive director of the North Mississippi Industrial Development Association, said Site Selector will be another valuable resource to help recruit industry to north Mississippi. NMIDA works with business, industry and power providers within the 29-county area of Mississippi served by the TVA.

“It will just be something to help us get the data to them in the form they need to make those decisions,” he said.

Sometimes those decisions are made anywhere from one to three years out, and sometimes a company is looking to do something next week, Stennis said. Although the latter is unusual, a system like Site Selector would allow his staff to gather quickly information for a wide area and possibly provide a contact with multiple choices.

“It’s going to make it easier to pull it up,” he said, “but it still up to the local people to keep it current.”

Those “local people” are economic developers like Charles Gulotta, president and COO of The Alliance, Corinth’s chamber of commerce and industrial development office.

Gulotta said his office uses a wide assortment of tools to gather information both for and about prospects, often tools marketed to people like him all over the country. Site Selector will be a tool available just for those within the TVA’s seven-state region and will be help give those like Gulotta a distinct advantage.

“TVA need to be commended for something like this,” he said. “The economic development business is getting more competitive everyday.”

And when vying for new industry “we have to have some substance but we also have to have some style in our presentation,” he said.

Summers said a modified version of Site Selector will soon be available on the Internet via the TVA home page.

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