The Economic Development Leadership Council (EDLC, “The Council”), developed at the University of Georgia (UGA) under the direction of the Office of Economic Development, formalized its mission and membership in January 2011. The Council emerged from the University and surrounding region’s recognition of the lack of coordination in economic development activities and a subsequently weak yet business friendly, entrepreneurial environment. Despite the wealth of resources the University had to offer and the creative spirit of the region’s communities, local circumstances prevented full actualization of the potential for economic development. In particular, the Office of Economic Development noted three primary issues: a) the lack of interdisciplinary and cross-sector communication among economic development entities including the University; b) a particularly depressed regional economy, specifically in regards to manufacturing and biotechnology/human health based economic development; and c) strict University budgetary constraints affecting the ability to develop new initiatives.
The University of Georgia, the Athens-Clarke/Oconee County community, and the Office of Economic Development collectively perceived the need for a sustainable, reliable UGA resource to coordinate economic development efforts among interested partners. Too often, communication between clients and the University did not provide adequate or timely outcomes. Clients approaching the University were often unable to identify let alone reach the appropriate staff, faculty, and facilities available to take opportunities to the next level. Unfulfilled requests, crossed lines of communication, and missed opportunities threatened to become far too prevalent as a “typical experience” with UGA. As the problem escalated, the University recognized the need for a structured, collaborative approach to economic development that could facilitate connections and partnerships with no new financial implications. In order to combat these problems, the Economic Development Leadership Council became the recognized “SWAT team” that could provide the expertise and commitment needed to promote cross-disciplinary collaboration and project development with agility, speed and a customer service oriented approach. Most importantly, the SWAT team was empowered by the President, the Provost, the Vice President for Research, and the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach, with support from the Georgia Department of Economic Development, Georgia Economic Developers Association, Athens-Clarke County, and Oconee County.
Athens-Clarke County, the smallest county in Georgia and the home of the University, has experienced an increase in poverty rates, with recent Census reports indicating that 33.5% of the population lived below the poverty level between 2006 and 2010. In addition, the county’s median household income dropped in the wake of the economic crisis to $34,253 annually, far below the state median of $49,347[i]. Investors and manufacturers seeking locations to establish new businesses and expand existing operations overlooked the county as a viable option. The lack of investment and business stimulation in turn prevented the local population from recovering from its economic decline, perpetuating the perception that Athens-Clarke County was a poor location for business. A longstanding lack of functional integration at a regional level with surrounding counties with significant economic development capacity and opportunity (Oconee, Jackson, Barrow counties) compounded the issue. At the State level, this created the impression this region was fragmented and did “not have its act together”. The Office of Economic Development at the University, with a vested interest in the economic health of the surrounding community, capitalized on the situation and recognized the opening for a catalyst that could bring together inquisitive and innovative minds with tangible mechanisms to make a difference.
The University of Georgia also faced considerable economic constraints including decreased funding from the state (a net decrease of approximately $55M since 2008) and a severely restricted operating budget. These limitations precluded the University from engaging in partnerships and initiatives that would require significant budgetary investment, preventing the development of a traditional, comprehensive enterprise as a response to the economic situation. As the University struggled to prioritize internal projects and programs, the potential for building and sustaining partnerships with external clients that could bring significant economic prosperity to the region declined. The University needed a solution that would not only engage with interested partners and reach out to potential clients but that would also operate under a limited budget and with no significant additional costs or consequences. UGA needed a resource that had expertise and experience in the various areas of economic development including research capacity, public service delivery networks, government relations, and central administrative connections as well as a willingness to donate time, resources, and knowledge without compensation.
The Economic Development Leadership Council was formalized to bring together University based practitioners involved in economic development activities with the capacity to significantly improve the University’s engagement in the surrounding region and the State. These individuals, representing an array of personalities and expertise throughout the University, willingly donate time, experience, and resources to the EDLC, the University, and the community in order to form a collaborative team with a multiplicity of tools, insights, and strategies to promote the economic welfare of the surrounding region. Members of the EDLC represent a variety of departments and offices across the University, including high-tech business development, small business development, corporate relations, public service and outreach, research, government relations, international partnerships, and technology commercialization. The EDLC is a streamlined, unified approach, creating a sustainable framework with a liaison position to guide incoming economic development inquiries towards the appropriate resources, facilities, and partners within the University.
The formal EDLC mission (“to align the intellectual and physical resources of the University of Georgia with Georgia’s economic development needs”) was established along with a structure and process designed to provide rapid but substantive collaborations with local and state governments, corporations, and nonprofit organizations. By ensuring the process remains nimble and able to connect client needs quickly to practical resources within the University, the EDLC plays a critical role in a state embracing more strategic and entrepreneurial approaches to development.
The specific tasks to which the Council devotes its resources and expertise vary with the type of client, source of inquiry, availability and expertise of Council members, as well as economic trends. From a general perspective, the EDLC maintains its collaborative structure by having a relentless commitment to communication and follow up with Council members, partners and clients. The EDLC specifically focuses on seven key areas of economic development: education, community preparedness, community project assistance, regional capacity building, research, research commercialization, and business assistance. Each of these goals effectively represents a “task” for the EDLC, with diverse clients approaching the Council from different perspectives and unique stages of development.
Necessity of Tasks
In order to fulfill the EDLC’s commitment to promoting economic development through enhanced interdisciplinary and cross-sector communication, the seven task areas are essential to fulfilling its goals. For instance, without the foundational backdrop of a strong educational legacy, a community cannot hope to fulfill its goals of future development and innovation. Obviously, a well-trained, educated, and knowledgeable workforce that arises from a quality educational system enhances the potential for economic development and ensures a future of discovery and invention. The tasks associated with community preparedness and community project assistance build on this educational foundation and enable communities to undergo training and receive assistance that will foster independent initiatives and localized responses to pervasive economic issues. As communities expand their potential for development and progress, regional capacity building, and research commercialization become viable options. The EDLC fosters the partnership between the University and community clients, opening the lines of communication and collaboration to explore service, research and commercialization opportunities. These partnerships and the inter-related nature of the tasks are highlighted in the document labeled “Continuum of Resources,” attached. As communities continue to develop, they seek to attract and expand businesses and corporations. The EDLC offers the advice and expertise to accomplish this task, effectively enhancing the economic health of the region and encouraging communities to build beneficial and impactful business environments.
The Economic Development Leadership Council developed a series of strategies and tactics that enabled faster, more efficient, and more effective communication among members. One simple but fundamental technique, a legacy of the Council’s initial creation, is the commitment to monthly coffee meetings, during which members discuss current ideas, initiatives, and undertakings relevant to the University and community. The one absolute requirement in attending these discussions is to arrive without preconceived agendas or intentions. These meetings ensure that Council members remain in constant contact and discussion, trading ideas and critiquing solutions, while passing along real-time information and opportunities relevant to particular members. The EDLC email listserv, open only to members of the Council, supplements the close communication generated from the coffee sessions; the availability of email correspondence enables rapid, daily contact, with members forwarding client requests, conference information, and timely developments at the University and at universities across the country. The objective of this communication strategy was the encouragement of interdepartmental collaboration, eschewing the tendency for University offices to engage in isolationism and independence. Comprised of representatives and practitioners from each component of economic development as well as important units of the University’s administration, the EDLC harnessed the unique capacities and knowledge of each person, stimulating a synergistic effect that multiplied the potential for impact.
Whereas the University of Georgia has established strong leadership and national significance in areas such as agribusiness, animal health, basic and applied research, public administration and community service, the EDLC instead focused on emerging fields of interest regionally that could offer new sources of economic vitality and prosperity (film and entertainment, biotechnology, manufacturing). In order to do so, the EDLC recruited members from a variety of University offices and departments, bringing together expertise across multiple offices and specializations. Far too often, state, regional, or local clients perceived the local community as hostile to the manufacturing, biotechnology industry, and entertainment industries. However, the Council, working with formal and informal community stakeholders, advertised the diversity of resources the University could bring to bear, highlighting otherwise overlooked facilities and faculty members and thereby attracting interest in the University as a resource for innovation as well as an active partner. Through techniques such as press releases, personal relationships, and media attention, the EDLC created an informal strategy for soliciting clients and partners in these emerging and promising fields. These meetings and communication pathways were a strategy not only for expanding the potential for partnerships in new fields but also for developing a framework for future solicitations and outreach.
Accomplishment of Items
The structure of the Economic Development Leadership Council itself contributed to its success in completing tasks and accomplishing agenda items. Although the Council meets only monthly at informal coffee meetings, communication between members never ceases, with daily email correspondence through the private distribution list. In addition, the members of the Council maintain a high level of respect and sensitivity for one another’s experiences, capacities, and unique knowledge, and have a fundamentally strong sense of “team,” recognizing that the sum of the parts has an exponential impact. As requests are triaged by the EDLC’s one full time employee with economic development expertise and formidable communication skills, members have learned to automatically find other members who can lend support and strength to a particular activity. This translates to the ability to operate the Council with an absolute dedication to decentralized, informal, and collaborative delegation of tasks. This has proven to be extremely efficient and has ensured that those most capable of handling the request complete projects in a timely and efficient manner. Sharing of information, duties, and resources has enabled the EDLC to accomplish its objectives without succumbing to the issues facing many Universities, including departmental competition, isolation, and protectionism.
In responding to requests from clients, the Council works as a unit to develop the best strategy for accomplishing results. Although the timeline for completion of tasks varies from one case to the next, the Council emphasizes rapid service delivery and timely provision of advice and counsel. The EDLC has prevented issues from becoming obsolete or unworkable by remaining informed and engaged in local, national, and global advancements in technology, entrepreneurship, and leadership initiatives. This strategy has engendered confidence and respect from clients, translating into a substantial increase in the trust factor and breaking down the perception of the University as a “black box with no doors or windows.” For more information on how this process works, please see the attached flowchart for economic development initiatives.
The Economic Development Leadership Council at the University of Georgia engages daily in economic development activities, both as a collective group and in individual offices and endeavors. Clients seeking the resources and services of the University of Georgia who consult with the Office of Economic Development and the Economic Development Leadership Council experience tangible qualitative and quantitative outcomes from their contact. The general benefits of the Council include a feeling of goodwill between University offices and community members, as well as the development of a reputation for quality service provision. In regards to particular projects, the most recent notable developments through the EDLC include the creation of Corporate Connect, collaborative work with the Georgia Film, Music, and Digital Entertainment Office, and the formation of an Area Manufacturing Committee.
Corporate Connect, a unit of the University’s Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, guides companies and businesses from the outside community towards the resources and research facilities available at the University of Georgia. Corporate Connect maintains databases of the research, resources, facilities, and strategic giving opportunities available to interested partners, creating dynamic organizational partnerships and offering resources to new and emerging businesses. Through its support of mutually beneficial relationships, Corporate Connect enhances the mission of the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, garnering support for the University while raising funds and fostering corporate connections. Created and facilitated by members of the Economic Development Leadership Council, the initiative remains active under the leadership of EDLC members (the executive director of the Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations is a founding member of the EDLC) and maintains its entrepreneurial edge thanks to the collaborative and communicative structure of the team. The Council, having brought together the researchers, students, and administrators required for the development of such beneficial partnerships, continues to assist with growing the University’s connections, which currently include corporations such as Pfizer, The Coca-Cola Company, Georgia Power, Kimberly Clark, IBM, AT&T, Delta, Dow Agrosciences, Baxter International, Caterpillar and a host of others. Each partnership offers a renewed reputation for excellence and the opportunity for additional funds to support the University of Georgia’s mission for education, research, and service. In return, corporations as well as the local community benefit from the increased economic development activity and from access to UGA researchers, expertise, and students.
Building on successes of the past, the Economic Development Leadership Council undertook efforts to expand the University’s economic development assets with exploration into the film industry and partnerships with the community group Film Athens as well as the Georgia Film, Music, and Digital Entertainment Office. The Georgia Film office visited Athens under the supervision and guidance of the EDLC, with the aim of reconsidering Athens and the University of Georgia as viable filming locations. In previous years, the University took an extremely conservative position in location shooting, which prevented many opportunities for the community. The EDLC learned through discreet conversations that a film crew that needed a college town location also needed the availability to film at the college. The EDLC worked diligently to communicate across all administrative branches previously engaged in this process in order to restructure a detailed, proactive approach to supporting this initiative, which would bring a considerable amount of economic opportunity to the community. Now, in addition to a several-day visit to the city comprised of multiple tours and receptions, the Georgia Film Office has officially recognized Athens as a “camera-ready” town, and announced interest in utilizing the University’s resources and facilities for future filming opportunities. Spearheaded by the EDLC, this announcement represents a significant economic development potential, especially in light of recent estimates that the movie and television business in Georgia has grown from $244 million in 2008 to over $2.4 billion today. In regards to community impact, the presence of film production crews in the city of Athens enhances profits for local businesses, including hotels, restaurants, equipment providers, caterers, tourist attractions, and other service providers hosting the film crew and actors. In FY12, the University film location requests have increased by 200%. Recent correspondences with movie producers envisage a lucrative future for Athens-Clarke County, with several filmmakers expressing interest not only in the local community but in the University as well. The EDLC’s unified and strategic response to inquiries from Georgia Film has situated the city to become the recipient of significant economic benefits.
The Area Manufacturing Committee began as a client inquiry from a local manufacturing firm regarding concerns about its wage rates and competitiveness in the local employment market. In reaching out to the Office of Economic Development, the local manufacturer instantly gained access to the spectrum of resources available to address his needs. This initial discussion expanded to include the human resource directors of the region’s most significant manufacturing companies. Through these discussions, the Economic Development Leadership Council is collaborating with professionals from the University’s Selig Center for Economic Growth and the Carl Vinson Institute of Government who are actively involved in industry and wage research. The goal is to create a specialized tool to meet the needs of local manufacturers. The EDLC rapidly encouraged a coalescence of regional partners with experience and knowledge in the manufacturing industry, many of whom expressed an interest in forming a collaboration of industry professionals to address similar concerns across the region. The EDLC, along with partners at Athens Technical College, formed the Area Manufacturing Committee with the purpose of addressing concerns, questions, and initiatives for the future of the region’s manufacturing industry. The EDLC invited the core members as well as steering advisors to the manufacturing council and has organized meetings and luncheons to bring members together to discuss industry issues, including wage rates, employment, and competitiveness. Given the recent nature of this initiative, the community has yet to quantify the benefits received; however, feedback from industry and community members signals a productive and prosperous future.
Each of these successes demonstrates the Economic Development Leadership Council’s commitment to fostering a diversity of regional economic development projects at the University of Georgia. By collaborating with successful and innovative organizations, the EDLC avoids costly operational procedures, instead relying on volunteerism, personal interest, and public sector motivation to coordinate projects and facilitate creative development. The positive outcomes of the projects, while continuing to develop and emerge over time, already include a sense of trust in and respect for the EDLC. In addition, the Council has managed to establish an enhanced public reputation for effective and efficient partnerships and collaborations. With this success, the EDLC can continue to impact both formally and informally the University’s role in economic development to ensure its breadth of resources are deployed regionally, across the state of Georgia, and in the nation as a whole in an efficient and appropriate manner.
As the University of Georgia and the surrounding community continue to expand and apply new innovations and novel approaches to economic development and entrepreneurship, the Economic Development Leadership Council will remain a valuable resource for connecting individuals across sectors and facilitating the communication and collaboration needed to bring sustainable economic development to the region. Along with continued progress in the areas of corporate relations, the film industry, and local manufacturing, the Council seeks to expand into other areas of development that can bring tangible economic benefits to the University, the region, and the state of Georgia. Among these areas for future development are anchoring a fledgling biotechnological and medical research industry, industrial manufacturing, and the digital and creative sector, each of which brings with it the opportunity for significant expansions in economic vitality.
One important aspect of the Economic Development Leadership Council’s framework is its potential to grow or shrink in size in response to demands from the community, the University, or members of the Council. The collaborative team works seamlessly thanks to its frequent communication and the tangible products of its existence. Sudden surges in requests for services stimulate growth of leadership positions with minimal effort on the part of Council members.
Furthermore, in light of the fact that members of the EDLC volunteer their time and services, the team is able to function with a very small budgetary impact despite its significant developmental impact on the University and the community. Accordingly, the EDLC represents a model of sustainability in economic development advancement.
While the EDLC has the potential to shrink if/when needed, the Council expects a vibrant and active future in the coming years. As the University of Georgia and the region expand in size and scope, the EDLC will continue to provide valuable expertise, experience, and services to new and developing businesses. In the current age of technological and manufacturing advancements, the EDLC can assist the University and surrounding community in developing projects in the areas of biotechnology, healthcare, entertainment, and engineering. The future economic success of the community and state rely heavily on the capacity of the University of Georgia, the Office of Economic Development, and the Economic Development Leadership Council to meet and exceed standards of organizational performance.