Selling your rural community's assets
Some advice for small towns from a noted site consultant
By Mike Randle
Urban areas have all kinds of assets that are easy to spot. They have the population, so the labor shed is not usually an issue. Urban areas are also connected by well-maintained roads, rail and air service and many have river and deep water ports. Usually Internet access and other forms of communication are more efficient in urban areas. And there are a larger array of quality of life options to choose from, such as the cultural assets found in metropolitan areas.
Yet, there are many unique assets that are present in the rural South that are not found in urban areas. For example, an abundance of timber would make a strand board, furniture or wood pellet manufacturer take notice no matter how rural the area. A rural county with an abundance of pure, clean water would attract a beverage manufacturer. And food manufacturers and other major users of water are going to find large water capacities in nonmetro areas of the South. Rural counties in the South are typically locations for certified industrial sites of greater size and quality than what can be found in metropolitan areas.
The rural South, while incredibly attractive to manufacturers, can be attractive to the service sector as well. Call centers thrive in the nonmetro South. In some areas of the rural South, you will find connectivity levels that are as good, if not better than, those in urban areas. That being the case, any business related to the Internet can make its home in small town South.
"Everyone's got something," site consultant Mark Williams said about rural communities in the South. Williams is president of Columbia, S.C.-based Strategic Development Group. "Every small county in the South has a unique asset they can sell to companies. The problem is, some of the leaders of those small communities don't know what the asset is that companies would be interested in," Williams continued.
Williams says that there are too many counties in the rural South doing the same thing when marketing their communities. "You see a lot of communities sort of participate in a rote exercise of 'I am going to go to these conferences, these trade shows. . .I am going to do what everyone else is doing.' The fact of the matter -- particularly in the rural areas of the South -- is each community has distinct assets that often are not recognized. So if these communities would spend a little more time verifying what their assets are and hunting down and bringing in people who treasure those assets -- and don't care so much about their liabilities -- they would do a whole lot better," Williams said.
"It's an art form," Williams continued. "There are site consultants like us; there are corporate representatives that typically have short snippets of time where they are gathering information. So it's an art in terms of assessing what these people's needs are, and conveying to them what the particular assets are that meet those needs, versus conveying a range of facts and figures that are superfluous to what the site selection consultants and companies need. That's a real weakness of some communities; they tell everything but only five percent of it is germane, so the companies go somewhere else."
The site selection game has also changed, particularly for rural areas in the South, and getting the message about your "asset" out to as many people as possible has never been more important according to Williams. He explained, "A big part of how the game has changed is if a community hears from us. . .that means they have been pre-selected because there has been a process that has been gone through to short-list them in some way. That's a positive thing in terms of less people kicking tires, so to speak, because they have done their homework by the time they get to the community. The other challenge for communities is, if they don't convey the assets of their community, via Internet, via website, via advertising, via other means that people are searching without their knowledge, they've got a real problem, because they are going to get cut and not even know it."