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Economic development changing
Heath: Speaker showed new reality, how to cope

Sunday, April 14, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

A consultant from Pennsylvania may have helped some local residents understand that although there are some consistencies in the field, economic development has changed in the last several years.

“I think reality is what has hit us in the face, and we’re trying to accept it and also deal with it,” Mark Heath, president and CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., said after Laith Wardi, president and certified economic developer (CEcD) of Executive Pulse in Erie, Pa., addressed representatives of local businesses, governments, educational institutions and others Tuesday.

Heath said the response to Wardi’s presentation “has been very positive. I think some people were a little shocked” by the forthright statements, “but quite honestly, what he said was true.”

Wardi’s presentation focused on changes in economic development, including the impacts of competing in a global economy, advances in technology that reduce employee ranks and replacing Baby Boomers as they retire.

He also said that while jobs will be created, net new job growth likely will not happen again.

“It was a sobering explanation of what most of us, or many of us, know,” Heath said Tuesday, shortly after Wardi’s talk. “As we cross over into this new economy, people may not have realized there are not going to be net new jobs” created, he said Thursday. “That just didn’t resonate” with some people.

While sobering, Wardi’s comment “does not mean that we won’t have any new jobs” created, Heath said. He added that “over the last seven years, we have created” 3,000 jobs.

“Most communities this size” with that many jobs created in that length of time “would be celebrating in the streets,” Heath said. The difference here is that 19,000 jobs were lost within the past three decades.

Still, “that doesn’t mean you should just give up” on growing the economic base, Heath said. The EDC will continue working to attract new companies and new industries to the area, he said.

He also said developing Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre is as important now as it has ever been.

The new industrial park will add more options to attract industries, Heath said. But “if Commonwealth Crossing was the only thing we were doing, that would be wrong. Economic development is a puzzle, and nobody has all of the pieces. We just have to have more in our toolbox than our competitors,” he added.

Wardi said efforts to retain and expand existing businesses are crucial to a local economy, with 75 to 80 percent of new jobs being created by existing businesses.

“Retention has always been important” in the field, Heath said. “This is nothing new to us. It’s been that way for 30 years or more. We constantly work with local companies and businesses because we realize how important they are” to the area’s economic vitality, he said.

That work may be done behind the scenes and as such may be “invisible to some, but if we can help a company stay here, keep them here and they can expand,” Heath said the local economy benefits.

Heath added that information Wardi presented on other fronts was encouraging.

For one, leaders in Henry County and Martinsville have created a blend of holistic and traditional approaches to help rebuild the local economy by including tourism and small business/entrepreneurs in the mix, Heath said.

That blend is needed because “we’re not making decisions about how we go about” growing the economy, Heath said Tuesday. “The global economy is making those decisions for us.”

Wardi also praised the county and city for forging partnerships and placing importance on education and workforce training.

Also, diversifying the base of companies/industries is needed, Wardi said.

Heath agreed.

“If there has ever been a community striving for diversity and balance and spreading the base, we should be it,” Heath said. “We were blessed for years to have textile and furniture jobs, but when you only have jobs” in primarily two different industries and “those jobs leave, it hurts.”

The one consistency in the ever-changing world of economic development is that companies go out of business, he said.

“There is no guarantee that any company will survive forever in any market,” Heath said. “Companies come and go. We have to expect it because it happens.”

The difference, he said, is the impact.

“When everything is rocking and rolling, so to speak,” in the economy, “we don’t notice it as much” if a company closes, he said. “But when the economy is bad,” a closing or relocation has more impact, he said.

Wardi’s speech was the first in a series of four being presented by the EDC. The second event in the series has not yet been announced.

Heath said the reason the EDC decided to host the events is to help residents understand that challenges related to the economy do not exist just in Henry County and Martinsville.

“It’s not just us,” he said. “This is going on everywhere, and we have a plan in place and an organization in place to help deal with it, but it’s going to be a long hard battle. It is not going to happen overnight.”


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