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Directors Share How Cities Grow with Economic Development

October 26, 2017
This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
Powder Springs city officials and developers join for the groundbreaking of the city’s $37 million development project.
 
As economic development continues to evolve, development professionals statewide are charged to find innova­tive ways to keep their communities thriving. Georgia’s Cities sat down with three city economic develop­ment directors: Stephanie Aylworth of Powder Springs, Robert Smith of Perry and Chris McGahee of Duluth, to learn how their roles have changed, useful tips and tactics, and what’s next for their cities.
 
GC: Why are economic development leaders important to communities?
Aylworth
SA: Those directors serve as touch­points for not just business recruit­ment, but for business development. Development departments are im­portant because you have to have a mechanism in place that helps your businesses stay fluid and sustain for years to come—that’s true for both small and large industries.
RS: The most important role in my po­sition is to serve as a liaison between the elected officials, the residents and the 640 businesses in the community. Economic development professionals must also ensure that retail areas are vibrant, and that they’re constantly providing new ideas, resources and investment opportunities to the com­munity.
 
GC: Can you share some recent economic development “wins” and what’s next for your city?
SA: In August, Powder Springs broke ground on a $37 million development project, which is a step-up memory care facility. This project fulfills two of our major industry gaps—medical and construction. This is the largest development in the history of Powder Springs.
Smith
RS: We recently worked with the devel­opment authority to attract German-based Sandler Nonwoven Corpora­tion, who established their first North American location here in Perry. In ad­dition, we are already up to 226 new homes this year, which is going to be our second biggest year for new home builds. The city is being very proactive in planning for this growth.
CM: Our biggest win, was being able to restructure the definition of “eco­nomic development” post-Recession. After the Recession, all of the [eco­nomic development] rules changed and it took us about three years to figure out that this type of develop­ment wasn’t going to be short term, and we restructured for our particu­lar area. This new definition includes jobs, but we also switched to a real estate mode of thinking—from com­mercial brokers to business and we understood the story of every piece of property in Duluth. This allowed us to adapt, reuse and develop. Now we have 188,000 square feet of new retail under construction and 1244 homes under construction—half of those are multi-family.
 
GC: What economic development trends are you seeing?
SA: Besides the technology trend, one trend we really need to take into consideration is international invest­ment and those opportunities where we can look at our region and identify where the gaps are. It’s about grow­ing your region versus your tiny town, and one issue that I’ve seen when it comes to development is that we get so isolated in our boundaries that we don’t understand that true economic development comes from being able to look from a regional approach what you can bring into your community and how everyone can work together as a whole.
McGahee
CM: Learning how to survive Amazon and e-commerce is a large focus. You have to figure out if current retail sites are adaptable and create more desti­nation lifestyle centers where people have an experience as they shop.
 
GC: What economic development strategies do you use to attract businesses and residents?
SA: We do annual strategic planning with the city council, which allows everyone to work on the same goals with the same target industries. One of the things I think we do right here is our homework and research to see what really is going to be successful. Because the last thing we want to do is spend time recruiting a business and have them not be sustainable within our market and our city.
 
GC: What tips would you provide to economic development directors and leaders across the state?
SA: Define your places and work to get buy-in from staff, city officials and departments. Our biggest asset right now is that we have our two develop­ment authorities and our elected offi­cials really working on the same plan hand-in-hand—it’s truly a recipe for success.
RS: The businesses in your commu­nity need to know that if they have an issue or problem that you will do everything you can to address that is­sue and that problem. For instance, last year I visited over 200 of our busi­nesses in Perry just to say “Hey,” and they really appreciate that.
CM: Always remember to look at the scale of what you can affect—don’t look at budgets and resources of oth­er cities. Define what makes you valu­able and special. From there, you, as a leader, and your leadership team must generate the momentum without let­ting anything stand in your way.