When chambers of commerce celebrate the opening of a new business, not only are we celebrating the dream, but we are celebrating the creation of jobs in our community, and a job is the greatest force for change. For those chambers of commerce grappling with whether you have a role in economic development, the answer is yes, and it always has been. Your chamber is relevant to growing and sustaining jobs in your community. Therefore, you are engaged in economic development and you should build out your program of work.
When you want to expand your seat at the economic development table, consider seeking out a partnership with the economic development professionals in your community. If there isn’t one, well then, it’s time to establish an economic development team. Whether your organization, an existing organization, or no organization exists, there are three key areas to grow your organizations economic development engagement: economic development strategy, business retention and expansion, and workforce development.
By the way, if there aren’t any economic development professionals in your community then you need to establish the team/council/task force. The name doesn’t matter, but the players do. When setting up a council to focus on economic development, you want to have some key players at the table, such as your board chair, leading financial institution, utilities, transportation, industrial developer, mayor, and higher education/technical training. Once the group is established or a collaborative partnership is formed with your local economic developer, then engage the following three programs to impact economic development in your community.
Every community needs an economic development strategy. A standalone economic development strategy is primarily a policy document that outlines economic development goals drawing specific attention to economic development opportunities. You’ll need to hire a consultant to facilitate the process, which will most likely include community surveys, stakeholder meetings, and one-on-one interviews coupled with a good bit of research. Chambers of commerce can be the conveners and drivers of the plan, orchestrating the stakeholders and resources to implement the initiatives. Implementation of the specific initiatives should be shared within the community, with plan chaperoning falling to your organization. Funding options for plan creation include grants from utility companies, transportation partners, and local financial institutions.
A Business Retention & Recruitment Program (aka BRE) is a program designed to assist existing businesses in our communities to grow and thrive. At its core, the BRE program collaboratively integrates informal efforts that are focused on improving relationships between local businesses and the community that incorporate a wide range of tools and services designed to help local firms become more competitive and grow where they are rather than relocate. BRE programs are natural fits to chambers of commerce because chambers have always been about relationships, information, and connections, which is the heart of a BRE program. A BRE program demonstrates collaboration leadership, partnerships, visitation teams, business awareness, and development of community support that provides a benchmark against which a program can be evaluated and its success measured.
More chambers than not are engaged in workforce development. Workforce impacts an existing company’s success in your community and relocating company’s decision to choose your community. It is an essential component of community economic development in any economic climate and more critical during our current crises. Workforce describes a varied range of actions, policies, and programs employed by geographies to create, sustain, and retain a viable workforce that can support current and future business and industry. Workforce programs include community leadership programs, wage and benefit surveys to target sector training programs, and childcare. A workforce strategy needs a core council and plan to meet the needs specific to your community.
If your chamber is interested in strengthening your program of work to include economic development, these are three items to consider: establishing an economic development strategy, deploying a business retention and recruitment program, and leading a workforce and talent development plan. Every state has a strong economic developers association and a state department of economic development. They are your resources to grow a robust role in your community’s economic development.