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Industrial Foundation: Focused, determined and staffed

December 14, 2020Doug Peters, President & CEO of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce

The Abilene Industrial Foundation (AIF), the Chamber’s private sector arm of the public/private economic development partnership, has come a long way over the last five years.

The AIF has stood for more than six decades as the private sector’s contribution to Abilene’s economic development effort, bringing both private resources, private sector time, leadership and expertise in support of our area’s effort to attract, retain and grow jobs and capital investment.

A contracted, independent partner to the Development Corporation of Abilene (DCOA), both organizations – together known as “DevelopAbilene,” underwent a thoughtful yet dramatic evolution in recent months.  The product of that evolution has positioned our community to maximize its economic development competitiveness and to align its efforts for both efficiency and impact.

In 2016, Abilene adopted a strategy, known to many as the “TIP Strategy,” that called for Abilene to approach economic development in a way that positions Abilene and its residents for long-term growth and prosperity.

But this plan was (is) different:  it encourages Abilene to pursue “a bottom-up approach that equips and supports existing and future businesses, students and entrepreneurs.”  And while progress has been made towards those initial goals, the framework to guide our future effort has been solidified.  In short, we are all systems go.

Under the realignment, which you read about here, the DCOA has primary responsibility for the functions that fall naturally within its wheelhouse – marketing of our community for business attraction and the utilization of its resources, both financial and real estate, to leverage the capital investment and jobs that broaden our tax base and create wealth among our citizens.

By way of contract, the AIF has responsibility for servicing those businesses who have already invested here, our existing employers.  Maintaining communication with those companies and helping them to grow has long been in the Chamber’s wheelhouse.  In addition to business retention & expansion (BRE), the AIF also has the role of working with allied partners to help attract and retain a world class workforce.

Looking back to the TIP Strategy, which has been central to the Chamber and AIF focus since its adoption, the AIF has also taken on supportive roles in entrepreneurial development, or “economic gardening,” which helps to build the systems within our community to grow our own jobs.  Abilene is positioned well with dynamic resources such as America’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), our university partners and many who embody the entrepreneurial spirit.

This role allows our community to advance its focus in the area of small business development by linking our resource providers together, streamlining the process of starting and growing an emerging enterprise, and growing jobs and opportunity for Abilene from the inside-out.

And finally, you know of the Chamber’s passion for our beloved downtown.  Back in 2017, under the leadership of the Chamber’s Chair-elect Laura Moore (the Grace Museum) and Taylor Sturgis (Key Appraisal Group), the Chamber helped to bring the community together to cast a vision for the future of our central business district.  There was no magic there, only determination.  And that determination was fueled, if you recall, as a means to attract and retain the workforce necessary to help grow our economy.  The magic came from those who’ve risked so much to contribute to the vision that was cast by the community (side note:  please get out and support them as today’s challenges are immense).

And then there’s the driver of two important areas of influence in any community.  Quality of life and sales tax.  What helps to drive them?  Retailers, among others.  The AIF, through realignment, now serves as the primary point for retailers interested in the Abilene market.  Quality retail adds to the quality of any community.  It’s never been more important to support and grow our retailers than it is today.

So who does all of this?  Great question – I’m glad you asked.

The AIF has, in the past, been staffed by 4.3 people. AIF staff, through the realignment, have been reduced to 3.3 led by Dr. Helen Usera (“U-sarah”) who will serve as Director, Business Retention & Expansion (BRE).  Helen comes to us from Rapid City, South Dakota and is no stranger to Abilene.  She’s been engaged as a Civic Leader with Global Strike Command, which oversees the B-1 bomber platform at both Ellsworth and Dyess Air Force Bases and has long-been deeply involved in Chamber and economic development work over the course of her career.  Helen has a doctorate in education, and will work alongside AIF veteran Marissa Thompson, who has primary responsibility for Workforce and Talent Development.

Joining Helen is Brent Schroeder (SHRO-der), who is a graduate of ACU and well-versed in his areas of responsibility.  Brent serves as Director of Emerging Business for the AIF, and works closely with all our partners both public and private to ensure that Abilene remains a top choice for small business formation and growth, downtown revitalization and retail recruitment.  Brent has hit the ground running and has already proved himself a valuable asset.  We look forward to his long-term contributions.

Both Helen and Brent have completed their primary trainings and will continue to learn as they meet and listen to those of you in our community whose efforts they will support.  I hope you’ll find a way to introduce yourself to them.  After all, they work for you.

It’s exciting to be a part of Abilene’s economic development effort, and the AIF is grateful to its all-volunteer board which includes more than 60 area business, education and community leaders.  That board, led by Chairman Gary Grubbs (Lawrence Hall Abilene/ABI Advantage Media), is committed to fulfilling its role in the public/private partnership that defines our community.  In the end, economic development isn’t solely the role of the AIF, the DCOA, the City of Abilene or the Chamber.  Each of us, as citizens, plays a role.

Similarly, we look forward to continuing to support the important work of the DCOA, a role the AIF has had since the DCOA’s inception more than 30 years ago.  Together, alongside our partners and through the support of our elected officials, the AIF and DCOA as autonomous peer organizations are committed to ensuring that our City and this region thrive for decades to come.

For more information about the AIF, please check out www.abilenebusiness.com.

Onward!
Doug

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