The International Economic Development Council (IEDC) – the world’s largest economic development membership organization – has a staff of thirty and an average annual budget of $5 million, with which it works as a powerful force in the economic development arena.
When Category 4 Hurricane Harvey tore through Texas last August and September, the aftermath was devastating. The storm claimed an estimated eighty-eight lives, and two feet of rain poured down in just twenty-four hours. Emergency provisions like food and blankets were soon distributed to those in need. Economically, the brutal hurricane had a terrible impact on the Houston Metroplex, America’s fourth-largest city and its population of 6.22 million. Some 738,000 people registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for assistance, and a bill approving $15.25 billion in storm aid was soon signed by the president.
Rebuilding any area affected by natural disaster is never an easy process, but it is one that certified economic developer (CEcD) Jeffrey A. Finkle understands. Finkle recently returned from a trip to Texas to survey the damage done by Hurricane Harvey. As president and chief executive officer of the IEDC, Finkle is passionate about the role that economic developers play in the United States and other countries. And ever since Katrina hit the Gulf South, Finkle has been organizing economic developers to assist communities hard hit by disasters to go to those regions and volunteer to help those local economies recover.
Finkle served as president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Council for Economic Urban Development (CUED) from 1986 to 2001 and as president and CEO of the Association of Defense Communities (ADC), giving him decades of first-hand knowledge in the industry. The International Economic Development Council was created through a merger between the membership organizations CUED and AEDC in 2001.
Finkle not only serves as the IEDC spokesman, but he also works to foster relationships with key players in the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), along with directing programs in small business creation, retention and expansion, infrastructure investments, real estate trends and other critical areas.
Leading the board of the IEDC is Chair J. Richard, CEcD. Richard assumed his one-year term as chair on January 1, 2018 and is currently into his second year as president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation. Richard’s lengthy resume includes twenty years in economic development leadership roles. Both Richard and Finkle agree that economic development requires not only professional dedication – such as earning the certified economic developer (CEcD) designation through the IEDC – but a passion for helping others.
The IEDC had a role in helping disaster-affected areas such as Texas and New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and 2017’s Hurricane Harvey. This holds great meaning for Richard, as the Florida city of Tampa was also affected by Hurricane Irma, the first major hurricane to slam the city since 1921. Much of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were also hard hit, and the International Economic Development Council was there to help.
“I have to give great kudos to IEDC and its efforts to build toolkits and resources that economic developers can use to help restore their economy,” comments Richard. “IEDC was a leader in working with the Economic Development Administration (EDA) in developing this toolkit and programs at www.restoreyoureconomy.org, and it has all these resources that economic development organizations can use to mobilize services for their community. That was due to the vision and foresight of IEDC and its board and directors.”
IEDC’s Finkle recently found himself in Puerto Rico and Saint Croix, Virgin Islands, both hit by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, where he kicked off their volunteer program. “These are going to be long recoveries,” says Finkle. “Nearly 500,000 people in Puerto Rico still don’t have electricity.” Vital economic drivers, such as the hotels, resorts and spas responsible for hundreds of jobs, suffered millions of dollars in damage and will remain closed until 2019, dramatically affecting the local economy.
Finkle says that although most of the organization’s members are based in North America, the IEDC re-examined its role after Hurricane Katrina and asked itself what it was doing about lending a hand, with proven methodologies, to other places when they were struggling. “The economic developer community decided it needed to be helpful when disasters occur,” he says.
The organization approached the U.S. Economic Development Administration after Katrina and requested $80,000 – not a lot of money in federal terms. It used the funds to bring volunteers to Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana to work for a week at a time, and this valuable assistance helped local economic development agencies work on recovery efforts in their own communities.
Some IEDC members were themselves residents and were rebuilding not only local communities but also their own lives in the process. “Some of them were living in FEMA trailers,” says Finkle, “and others were living on the second floor of their houses because the bottom floor was flooded, and they had to rip out all the drywall and get rid of the mold. One of our members lost his house completely – it was pulled directly off the foundations and swept out to sea – every belonging in that house was gone. So we started shuttling people down there.”
Volunteers actively worked in small business recovery centers, did business retention calls, incubation studies and more. In the spirit of camaraderie, an intern in the IEDC office volunteered to go to Louisiana, where she was put up in the house of a board member to help the economic development alliance Greater New Orleans, Inc. as a receptionist in their office for a week. The alliance had to lay off staff since businesses were unable to support the organization.
“As a professional, you have to have that innate drive and motivation to look at communities, understand some other issues and challenges and what opportunities are before them and envision and create the plan to execute it,” says Richard. “It all goes back to being a true professional who is motivated by the work itself.”
IEDC membership represents the full spectrum of the economic development profession – including everything from small local economic development organizations all the way to large city development associations, chambers of commerce, utility companies, educational institutions, private and public consultants and others. The strength of the IEDC comes from the experience and influence of its members in workforce development, real estate development and commercial revitalization and business finance and infrastructure. These skill sets and many others are used to create incentive packages for businesses of all sizes seeking to locate or expand to another area.
It is not unusual for towns and cities to create incentive packages to lure companies that will diversify their economies. It is a goal to increase diversification of different business types, much like a stock portfolio. If certain industries are not represented or underrepresented and the area has the necessary assets for those industries to be successful in their community, it makes sense to offer incentives, says Richard.
“In essence, what you’re trying to do is prime the pump. You’re trying to get companies to expand and grow in your community that you don’t otherwise have, and for them to be successful, there has to be some ground-level support for that to happen.”
In Tampa, for example, the city did not have a large pharmaceutical company presence until a few years ago, as it is known mainly for financial services and customer support centers. While setting up a capability center – a robust-type of customer service center, Tampa attracted the attention of global biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). A significant incentive package was soon prepared, and BMS relocated to the area and expanded its operations.
Soon, American multinational giant Johnson & Johnson announced it was looking for a similar facility. “And we were able, because of our track record and success with Bristol-Myers, to get Johnson & Johnson here and with far less incentives than we did for Bristol-Myers Squibb,” says Richard. Recently, successful recruiting saw biotech company Amgen opened a facility in Tampa without receiving any incentives.
“You have to display that these companies can be successful here in our community, and incentives were part of that decision at that time,” comments Richard. “Communities are starting to get more sophisticated, and they’re building more formulaic incentives, meaning you have to perform in certain areas to receive certain benefits. Often times, it’s not like a big fat check for coming to a community announcing they are going to locate here. I think communities have gotten way more sophisticated today, and those types of practices are far and few between. The reality is, incentives, when used properly, can prime the pump for future companies and organizations to help a community diversify its economy.”
Several years ago, the IEDC commissioned two reports on skills necessary for economic developers. Among other things, the IEDC realized that to be successful, individuals needed to be communicative, demonstrate leadership qualities, be fairly analytical, understand transparency, deal with public officials, be knowledgeable in real estate and finance, know tax regimes and more.
For Richard, one of the most important qualities of an economic developer is the ability to check one’s ego at the door. While playing an important role, many developers work tirelessly in the background and ensure others are recognized for their success. “Economic development is a team sport,” he says. “You need the capacity to build partnerships and collaborate. In many of our communities, you have to work through private-public partnerships, and in many ways, you have to work in a regional nature. Even though you may be the leader of a local economic development group, you have to work with your counterpart in other cities and other regions to make sure the whole story of the region is being told.”
Richard says economic developers also need to be motivated by an unwavering desire to help communities and work in the face of challenges, restrictions and limited resources. “You have to be pretty creative in how you execute on that mission. And if you’re not motivated about the purpose of economic development and the value provides communities, it’s going to be tough to wake up every morning doing what you do. You have to be mission-driven in this profession.”
There will be other challenges in the years to come for the International Economic Development Council, including everything from working with communities in the aftermath of disasters and dramatic changes to how business is conducted to federal funding, but Finkle and Richard say the IEDC is ready. “The future looks really bright for IEDC, and our profession,” comments Richard. “When I first got into the profession twenty years ago, nobody knew what economic developers were about.”
In recent months, the profession has been the subject of discussion on TV shows Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Saturday Night Live as they reported on the search for a new headquarters site for Amazon. Twenty cities are shortlisted, and the potential benefits to the winning city are staggering.
“John Oliver knows who we are now!” he says, laughing, “and that’s because the public has become more aware of what economic developers are all about through the whole Amazon process. People can say what they will, but this basically provided a big, bright spotlight on economic developers and what we do. When your profession is satirized on Saturday Night Live, you kind of know you’ve arrived. IEDC is a strong organization, and it is growing and increasingly proving more valuable to economic developers, because what we are doing is more diverse than company recruiting,” he shares.
“We are having conversations on topics like economic inequality, talent attraction, workforce development, even affordable housing. These are all functions that are now impacting every local economic developer, and we have to be able to prepare our communities to face these types of issues. And we are in a great position to help facilitate those types of conversations and dialogue with the stakeholders and our respective communities to do something about it.”