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Site selection is key to recruitment, pros say

Know thyself. That is the general consensus among economic and community developers concerning the site selection process. While the stakes for wooing large corporate entities — or any business big or small — continue to rise, site location basically remains matching prospects’ wants and needs with the community’s available assets. So, in order to “make the list,” communities have to keep a good handle on the resources they hold and make that data readily available to prospects.

Mitch Stennett, president of the Economic Development Authority of Jones County, said, “Site selection is why we conduct community analyses. That’s the information used by prospects when looking for a site. It is essential that you know what you have available, especially now when there is a shorter time span to respond to a prospect’s inquiry due to technology.”

Paul Alexander, executive director of the Panola Partnership in Batesville, agreed. “It’s all about inventory. You have to know your resources,” he said. “It’s going to be one of the first things a prospect will look at. Prospects are not going to waste their time looking at a community if it doesn’t have the facility or land available. Therefore, it’s absolutely critical that a community is prepared and knows what it has to offer. And that information has to be fresh.”

Alexander recently experienced the rigors of getting the once-over by a major manufacturer. For more than six months, Panola County vied with larger and better-known locations in an attempt to land a Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America Inc. plant. In the end, Panola County finished a close second behind San Antonio, Texas, for the $800-million facility. While it hurt, the Panola Partnership’s pain was somewhat eased when Toyota broke with policy concerning commenting on sites not selected and praised Panola County for its recruiting effort.

“We were not one of the sites considered by Hyundai (which looked at a site in Central Mississippi before deciding to locate in another state prior to Toyota’s interest in Panola County),” Alexander said. “I did a lot of research to see if we could contend for another superproject.”

He said that hard work paid off when Toyota came calling. “Landing a superproject is not an inclusion game, it’s an exclusion game, and the goal, of course, is to be the last one standing. We weren’t, but now we’re on the radar screen of every corporation in the world looking to locate in the region.”

Concerning Toyota’s praise of the county, Alexander added, “If we say it, it’s bragging. If they say it, it’s a fact.”

While the basics of site selection have not changed much over time, the rise in the use of technology and site consultants has altered the dynamics of the process. As Stennett said, communities’ response time to inquiries from prospects has shortened dramatically. The reason — technology, namely the Internet.

“Because of the Internet and e-mail, companies can get the demographics on a community quickly, you can send them aerial photographs of sites, etc.,” Stennett said. “So, whereas the response time used to be two to three weeks, it’s now more like two to five days.”

While technology is a means to site location, it is also becoming an end, Stennett said. “More and more prospects need such things as fiber optics and broadband Internet access. It wasn’t that long ago that you never heard a request for that kind of infrastructure or capability. Now, it’s quite common.”

While the World Wide Web has changed the dimensions of the site location playing field, so has the rise of the site consultant. More and more, companies are outsourcing their site selection efforts, which developers say can offer both challenges and benefits.

“Since you are not dealing directly with the prospect, it can be difficult,” Stennett said. “However, site consultants can become a huge asset. If you can get a consultant excited about your community, he is no longer a middleman. He is a salesperson for your area.”

Robert Ingram, executive director of the Greenwood-Leflore Industrial Board and the Economic Development Foundation, said, “From what I’ve seen and read, about 40% of major projects are now handled by site selection consultants. These consultants are bottom line-driven, and they have to show their client up front the money they have saved them.”

While consulting is on the rise, Ingram said approximately one in three prospects do their initial site selection work from the Internet, and a large number still come from the more common and traditional sources — power companies, the state and other entities. And though the stakes and the methods of site location have changed, the basics of not only site selection but economic development as a whole have not.

“You have to dig through the fog, find out what it is they really need and want,” he said. “If you don’t you’re not only not going to make the short list, you’ll never even make the long one. It basically comes down to this — the first community that answers the last question wins.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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