An Enhanced Pathway Forward

June 15, 2020Doug Peters, President & CEO of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce, President of the Abilene Industrial Foundation

Did you know that the Abilene Industrial Foundation (AIF), a key contributor to the Chamber’s mission, has served our community since 1956? That is 64 years and counting.

Over the course of time, the effort of the AIF has been adjusted to meet the changing, competitive landscape of industry retention and attraction. Last week, I proposed a long-sought realignment of the scope of the AIF’s work, which was met with unanimous support by its board.

While we adjust once more to meet the evolution of a changing competitive landscape, one thing remains steadfast, as it has for decades. The Chamber’s AIF is the private sector’s partner in Abilene’s longstanding and committed public/private economic development partnership and that private engagement lives larger today than ever before.

I’m going to give details of what that realignment looks like in a moment, but before I do, I want to thank all of those AIF supporters for their sustained support of the organization, both through time and treasure. I am also grateful for their confidence in the organization’s leadership as I assured them that tremendous thought had been vested in what was being proposed.

So, what’s the deal?

To fully understand, let me tell you where we’ve been.

In recent memory, the AIF has served as the community’s economic development marketing and recruiting arm. As the expectation of economic development delivery has evolved, so too has the work that we’ve taken on. Five years ago, the AIF was a supporter of downtown revitalization, but not a driver. That changed – and so did the impact. In the last three years alone, our community has seen the promise of nearly $400 million in new projects emerge. Because of the private resources committed by the AIF, we were able to capture – together with our public partners – a greater share of that promise. Those examples exist in many areas of our community.

And let me mention our interests in business retention and expansion efforts. Sure, we had the responsibility, but when you lined that role up against the other demands of the effort, there simply hasn’t been the time or resources to do it all – or perhaps I should say to do it well.

While virtually full employment is good, it’s also not so good. Not having bodies to fill the jobs we have available makes it nearly impossible to recruit the new ones. So, we tossed in a focus on workforce and talent development.

Needless to say, when you try hard to do more than you’re capable of doing, you sometimes end up short on results. I believe – as do many others – is that our community’s economic development effort needed a close review. Enter “realignment.”

So, as I mentioned, last week I pitched a product that was developed by the principals of the effort – our city manager, our Development Corporation of Abilene (DCOA) CEO, and me. And it wasn’t an exercise undertaken in a vacuum. We listened. A lot. We heard what was important to those who believe very strongly that the preservation of the public/private partnership was paramount. But we were also greenlighted to pursue a pathway that brings efficiency – and enhanced opportunities for success – to the effort.

Here’s the bottom line – the AIF – and it’s leadership, both professional and volunteer, will remain engaged in the recruitment of new industry, just as we have been since the 1950’s. But, the DCOA will lead that effort. Business leaders will be tapped to help close the deal, but the lift involved in suspecting, prospecting, and qualifying new Type A recruitment will fall to the DCOA. AIF will play a supporting role.

With that new responsibility comes the marketing component. If you’re going to sell it, it makes sense to control the marketing.

So where does that leave the AIF?

I’m happy to report that the alignment process really assigned responsibility to those with the subject matter expertise, particularly as it relates to business retention and expansion. The Chamber has been communicating and engaging business since 1908. We know how to listen, to ask the questions, and now finally will have a means to track the privately (and protected) collected information and respond to mutual opportunity as well as challenges. As I shared with the AIF, the lion’s share of new job creation and capital investment comes from those who are already invested in Abilene. We will continue to service what we’ve sold.

It wouldn’t make much sense to work closely with existing industry without tying in an understanding of current and future workforce needs. We’ll ensure efficiency in the process by tucking our retention visits with the interests of workforce and talent availability, training and development.

The AIF will also continue its effort to revitalize the central business district, and we’ll do it with the solid understanding of where we’ve been and where we’re headed, thanks to the Center City Growth and Development Vision that you helped to author just a few short years ago.

What makes a community attractive to outsiders? Many would tell you – as would the data – is placemaking. Part of the placemaking process includes retail recruitment. That task will be married with the downtown effort, but it won’t be downtown-centric. The goal is to create the best Abilene, using our heritage and history as our guide.

And finally, the AIF will have growing responsibility for one of the most important components of any community – small and emerging business. No, we won’t be recreating the wheel. But, we will ensure that the subject matter experts in our entrepreneurial ecosystem are aligned, energized, accessible and positioned for tremendous success.

The Chamber’s Executive Committee will take up the realignment at its June meeting, acting on a recommendation from the AIF’s board. We’ll keep you posted on the result but do expect great things ahead for the partnership that defines our great city.






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