Retaining our current businesses should be first goal

Published 6:00 am Wednesday, August 26, 2020

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A Friday morning conversation in downtown Farmville with Caryn Kayton of Caryn’s Bridals Formals and Tuxedos and Carol Broadwater of Amish Originals brought about an idea that started as an off-hand comment by Broadwater but may actually be a real solution for Farmville’s local business community.

The two suggested a county business advocate position, for Prince Edward County, tasked with strengthening local businesses. Think of it as an economic development person, but instead of focusing on industrial parks and data centers, the job would include educating, retaining and growing businesses.

“When the county is sitting on $2 million from the federal government…,” Broadwater said, “Use it to hire someone to do what we need,” Kayton continued. “Create a new position and it will pay for itself after the first year.”

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“Create a new position to help businesses recover from COVID, so that could actually be COVID-related,” Broadwater said. “There is nobody that is looking out for their (county’s) tax resources.”

With the county administration changing in the coming months, this could be a good time to put the position in place.

Businesses small and large will need help to recover from the pandemic long after the economy comes back to full strength. Many businesses were struggling before the pandemic. As the transition to online retail speeds up, businesses need to stay two steps ahead of the trends. Plus, economic development isn’t what it used to be.

In 1999 there were 12,702 economic development projects of a $1 million capital investment that created at least 50 jobs. By 2006, a time with a great economy, that number had fallen to only 4,774 projects. That number is likely much, much lower today.

A business retention specialist, employed by the county, could help educate and be a valuable resource for entrepreneurs looking to start new businesses, all for the tax money they are already paying.

As chambers of commerce and other dues-based business groups have turned toward events, advertising sales and social gatherings as a way to support their own budgets, there is a need for solid business education, marketing advice and advocacy at the local and state levels. With economic development opportunities slowed by the lack of retail expansion (and actually a great deal of retail contraction) and no real industrial activity on the horizon, that mysterious economic development position that typically resides in county government may best be served by helping retain businesses already here. The areas that do the best at keeping the Main Street windows occupied will be way ahead in the coming years.

A 2018 article from Purdue University on the strategy of changing from an economic development to a business retention strategy had this amazing stat from former professor Dr. David Birch of MIT. He found that 80% of job growth in any community is generated by businesses already there.

While we shell out big bucks in hopes of attracting data centers and rank the chain restaurants we would like to see come to the area, maybe the real goal should be strengthening the businesses and restaurants already here and helping other local entrepreneurs open new ventures.

ROGER WATSON is editor of The Farmville Herald. His email address is Roger.Watson@