What just happened?

July 10, 2020Doug Peters, President & CEO of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce

If you watched the news last week, you saw an important evolution in the way Abilene and our region competes for jobs and capital investment.

And while all of those media accounts were accurate, I want to make sure you hear from me on what the “realignment” between the Chamber’s Abilene Industrial Foundation and the Development Corporation of Abilene means to you, your business and our community’s future.

When I arrived in my new hometown in 2015, I was met with a strong commitment by community leaders to create and adopt a brand-new strategy for economic development.

What I found in the document that became known as the “TIP Strategy” was a well-thought approach to maximizing the results for job creation and retention. You’ve heard me speak and have read my thoughts about the components of the strategy. It’s been the Chamber’s roadmap as we’ve revved up our engines over the last four years. It’s the product of months of deep thinking, competitive analysis and the realization that Abilene, Texas competes on a world stage. It’s a document that provides the ability to win.

But despite the importance of the document, we’ve piecemealed our way through it. As much as the Chamber tried to own it, there was only so much that could be done until all the partners aligned to truly pursue it as it deserved to be pursued.

The Abilene Industrial Foundation (AIF) is a storied, long-standing private sector-driven economic development arm of the Chamber. One leg, as it were, of a three-legged stool that included the City of Abilene and the Development Corporation of Abilene to bring the balance.

Historically, the AIF had responsibility for the marketing of our community for capital investment and the creation of jobs. In 2016, when the TIP Strategy was adopted, we realized through the document that Abilene could no longer do economic development the same way it always had. The world had changed. Economic development had changed. And those two factors called for a bold shift in how we do things.

Fast-forward to last week. What you saw in the realignment pitch to Abilene City Council was the culmination of (literally) years of proposals. Discussions. Debates. And a lot of deep thinking. Toss in a few healthy disagreements and some important compromise, and realignment finally happened.

There were literally dozens of really smart, deeply committed people engaged in deciding how Abilene will compete going forward. I want to thank the AIF Executive Committee, led by Gary Grubbs (Lawrence Hall-Abilene), past AIF Chairman Scott Hibbs (Enprotec Hibbs & Todd), the AIF board of Investors who bring the private sector horsepower to the table, the Board of the Development Corporation of Abilene and certainly the Abilene City Council. In 35 years of community and economic development work, I’ve never seen a community rally around change the way this one has. Each provided unprecedented support – unanimously.

And that’s a good thing.

Here’s why.

I learned long ago that no one organization can be all things to all people. Specialty work depends largely on specialists. Trained professionals who understand the objective and know how to bring along the process to achieve it. And that’s what this realignment does. It assigns the work in an expanded economic development effort to those who can do them best. After all, it all starts with jobs.

The AIF has handed the DCOA the primary responsibility for industrial marketing and business recruitment. I have confidence that they will do extremely well in ensuring Abilene’s share of wins. We will continue to work closely together to make it so. The AIF will maintain the importance of autonomy and independence that makes it a unique contributor to the process. As an independent contractor to the DCOA, the AIF will leverage private sector investment and in-kind business acumen from its members to contribute to the partnership.

And the AIF, consistent with the rollout of the TIP Strategy, will continue to do what it has become very good at – knowing the customer, working to provide support and opportunity to those businesses already vested here, and helping to build an “ecosystem” that promotes organic job growth from within. That’s part of what we refer to as Business Retention and Expansion (BRE). Servicing what we’ve sold – and staying ahead of the game – will be the AIF’s primary role – and it’s number one responsibility.

Remember when the Chamber – through the AIF – got into the downtown revitalization business a few years ago? That was a component of the strategy. The AIF took the leap of faith, invested its members’ private dollars and created an effort in partnership with the City and our local foundations that cast a vision on the future of our downtown. And it wasn’t just about brick and mortar. It was primarily about creating a sense of place that positioned Abilene as a strong choice for emerging workers.

And I think many of you know my deep, strong affinity for small businesses. The realignment puts the Chamber and AIF front and center with partners like the Texas Tech Small Business Development Center (SBDC), working closely each day to ensure the process of starting, expanding and managing a business is maximized for those who choose that route. And get this – the first initiative out of the gate is a dramatic expansion of resources, thanks to our partners at the SBDC and our good friend Calvin Davis with the US Small Business Administration.

Soon, work will begin to align the Chamber, the AIF, the SBDC, a federal Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC), a SBA 504 loan program and potentially a business ombudsman representing the City of Abilene all working together. Closely. Add the prospect of a Minority Business Development Center that provides resources to Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUB) and the potential for in-house 8(a) certification and we begin to see improved opportunity for our community – across the board. Imagine what can happen if we can put small businesses in front of government and publicly-traded companies to help them win their share of contracts.

Think about that. You walk in with an idea and walk out ready to pursue it. That’s good stuff.

We’ll remain the lead for downtown revitalization and formalize our role, already in place, as the go-to for retail recruitment. We’ll adjust our role in workforce development by getting really good at serving as a liaison between business and education – while also directly promoting our community as a place for job opportunity to those seeking career advancement.

Finally, I share all of this with you to simply say that Abilene is progressing. And it’s doing so in a really smart, well-thought way. I’m grateful to the community’s leadership who have supported this important evolution, and for giving those of us in the trenches the ability to do what we need to do to compete in a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive economic development environment.

Every member of our community is responsible for economic development. We all have a role. Each of us.

I’m excited about our pathway forward. It won’t be any “easier,” but the process is defined – as is the focus.

Let’s get after it.

Onward!

Doug

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