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From the Ground Up

I’ll probably never meet Jim Roddy, but if I do I think I would like him right away.

Roddy took office as county executive of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania last January. What he found would make many people turn and run from the job. He walked into a situation where the county was over $25 million in debt, the population had declined during the 1990s by over 75,000 people, and the general mood was best described by the term “inertia.”

What a lot of people in such a position do is to hire an outside consultant to develop a plan. They would request proposals, review bids and select the lowest and best bidder. These days there are a lot of consultants to chose from.

Economic development consulting for municipalities is a growing industry in America. The consulting firms come in, do an economic analysis, interview community leaders, and issue a report containing recommendations for economic restructuring.

The process is good, but it can have its flaws. For example, sometimes the consultants only interview so-called community leaders on a list provided by the executive officer of the municipality or the county. Herein lies the problem.

As governmental executives change, so do the visions for the community. One administration might stress tourism, but be replaced by one that stresses industrial development. Each hires an outside consultant to do a study that justifies the vision. If you live in a city of any size, I’ll wager that you can find such a study setting on a shelf in city hall or the courthouse gathering dust.

Jim Roddy decided to try something else. He figured that there was enough knowledge and good sense in his county already. There was no need to hire an outside firm, he reasoned. Besides, it might save a little money to do things differently this time. He put out the word that he was looking for volunteers to step forward and come up with ideas to help move the county ahead. He also called the best and brightest people he knew and asked them to contribute their time and energy. Almost 1,000 people responded.

Because they were asked to come up with new ideas, they were soon labeled the “New Idea Factory.” They were segmented into committees. They attended Saturday training sessions on economic development conducted by Carnegie-Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Over 100 ideas were generated. The most feasible are now being transformed into reality. You can read more about it in an article that appeared in the Dec. 26, 2000, edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Could it be that some communities in Mississippi might benefit by using the same approach? Are there new ideas floating around that if given a fair chance at implementation might be the difference in moving a community forward?

Using the Jim Roddy method and my own experience working with communities, here is a list of items that are recommended as fundamental to the process:

(1) Train the volunteers on the economic and community development process.

(2) Work in committees. It is easier to eat the elephant one bite at a time.

(3) Set deadlines.

(4) Enforce the deadlines.

(5) Hold volunteers accountable. Don’t be afraid to replace a committee leader if he or she isn’t doing the job.

(6) Select volunteers who are good at working, not just good at putting meetings together.

(7) Publish the goals that come out of the new idea process.

(8) Celebrate success.

Useful to this process is an outside facilitator, someone that makes the process easier. A facilitator is concerned with the process of the community doing the planning. An outside consultant as referred to above is someone who does the planning itself. The difference is critical.

What Jim Roddy demonstrated in Allegheny County is that when communities are at a standstill, the fuel to power the vehicle of progress is already in the tank. It just takes someone in the driver’s seat to crank the engine.

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@hardwick.com.


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