Valerie Shaffer on measuring success, combating negativity in economic development

Almost every conversation about the future of our community eventually circles around to issues of economic development, job creation and quality of life. At the center of many public efforts on those fronts is the Economic Development Corporation and its President, Valerie Shaffer. I think and write a lot about the EDC’s model of building up our local economy, and Shaffer graciously agreed to sit down with me for some conversation. We talked about how things are going, the challenges along the way, and what it’s personally like to be working on such high-profile efforts. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Chris Hardie: Let’s say you meet someone who knows nothing about the EDC and what it does. How would you describe it to them?

Valerie Shaffer: We are a 501(c)3 not-for-profit development corporation contracted by the Wayne County government to provide economic development services. We get our funding from the Economic Development Income Tax, which is a quarter of one percent local income tax paid by working Wayne County residents. We really have three main priorities that we’re focused on: business retention and expansion, new business attraction, and workforce development.

CH: People can understandably be pretty sensitive about how their tax dollars are used, and the concept of public/private leverage ratios does’t always hit home for folks looking at their household budgets today. What’s the best case that you can make for why the EDC is here, the value that it brings, and why it should continue to do what it’s doing?

VS: Just about every county throughout the state, throughout the nation, has an Economic Development Corporation. If we’re not at the table, we don’t have a chance to compete for new private investment. While I don’t always agree with the way we have to use incentives in order to win projects, it’s just the nature of the beast. I understand it’s hard for citizens to grasp why a corporation may not have to pay 100% of their taxes, while as an individual they do.

Being in a smaller community and a more rural part of the state, we oftentimes have to offer more incentives [to prospective employers] than a larger, urban city would have to offer to land the deal. Our labor pool is smaller, which means [employers] have to go a further distance to get the number and types of qualified people needed to support their organization.

CH: It seems like economic development efforts can devolve into a rollercoaster of hit and miss…one day you’re announcing a great win with new jobs, another day you’re seeing a business close its doors or relocate. Other cities around the country are going through the same thing. How do you know if you’re on the right track and that we’re actually making progress over time?

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We were all champions, together

I continue to be amazed at how celebrating teamwork and athletic excellence can bring a community together. This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Richmond High School boys’ basketball state championship in 1992, and I’m pleased to share this related guest column from Rob Zinkan. I hope it inspires you. -Chris

Twenty-five years later, the memories are still vivid: 33,000 fans in the Hoosier Dome, dramatic come-from-behind overtime wins in both games, and Richmond High School’s long-awaited first state championship in boys’ basketball.

But as incredible as that Saturday in 1992 was, there was much more to that season’s story.

Triumph rarely comes without setbacks along the way. Our setback was the abrupt ending of our 1990-91 season in the semi-state, where we squandered a late seven-point lead to Mount Vernon. Instead of advancing to play Brebeuf Jesuit and harass Alan Henderson in the semi-state final with our “Runnin’ Red Devils” style of play, another promising season had ended in heartbreaking fashion. That awful feeling of what-could-have-been festered, setting the stage for ’92.

We knew that our 1991-92 squad had the potential to be special. Within the season’s first two weeks, we put up 100 points at New Castle, challenged nationally-ranked Chicago Martin Luther King (with its two seven-foot future NBAers), and knocked off top-ranked Anderson Highland at home.

Ranked number seven in the preseason, we finished the regular season 15-5 and ranked 12th. As was the case annually, the North Central Conference was a beast. (I remember a late-night visit to Reid Hospital for stitches after taking an elbow to the face during a road win at third-ranked Lafayette Jeff.)

I loved playing in Hinkle Fieldhouse; it was the quintessential atmosphere for Hoosier Hysteria and the one-class tradition. To reach the semi-state final, we won our first six tourney games by an average of 30 points. We benefited from a favorable tournament draw and avoided conference foe and number-one-ranked Anderson, an upset victim to Ben Davis earlier in the day.

Even though we were down at the half to Ben Davis that night, the collective feeling in the halftime locker room of confidence, excitement, and belief in one another is a lasting memory.

The euphoria of Billy Wright’s game-winning three from the top of the key was unreal. We had won the semi-state, our season was continuing, and we were going to the Dome!

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Does Richmond need an angel investor group?

If you had a great idea for a new product or business, how would you get the money you needed to turn that idea into reality?

If you’re fortunate maybe you have some savings to cash in. If you’ve got a great credit history, maybe you can find a bank to give you a small business loan. Perhaps you have a network of friends and family who will chip in to help. If your idea is particularly simple and exciting, maybe you can find the resources you need through crowd-funding.

But for many people, these kinds of head starts can be hard to come by. I’d guess that to be especially true for younger people who are perhaps most likely to both have a great entrepreneurial idea and be at a point in life where the risk of pursuing it is relatively low. If they can’t find funding to pursue a business idea, they may not get very far.

So it leaves me to wonder: as a part of our efforts to encourage entrepreneurship and the creation of small businesses here, would the Richmond area benefit from an angel investor group?

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Alison Zajdel on transition, politics and sustainability

Alison Zajdel, Executive Director of the Cope Environmental Center, recently announced that she would be stepping down from her role there to pursue new opportunities. Alison is someone I consider to be an incredible model of leadership, hard work and creativity when it comes to community-building and organizational development, and while I’m sad that Cope is losing her talents as ED, I’m excited to see what she does next. I talked with Alison about this change, what it means for her, and what stands out to her as some of Richmond’s strengths and challenges. (Full disclosure: I’m a financial supporter of the Cope Environmental Center.)

Chris Hardie: Can you give some context on the transition you’re going through right now with stepping down at Cope?

Alison Zajdel: This is my sixteenth year at Cope. I started off as Resource Coordinator working with membership, then moved into the Development Director role, working with fundraising and marketing. Then I moved into the Executive Director role, coming up on five years now.

I’ve been here for a long time, and it has been a wonderful ride. There’s just a ton of stuff that we’ve gotten done, and it’s certainly had highs and lows as every organization goes through. Everything that we’ve done has come to a nice transition point with getting through the campaign and finishing the new building – we’re ready to dedicate it in a month now. It felt like a really good time to pass the torch to somebody else for a different style of leadership, and that will be needed with the new opportunities that the Center has. I keep saying I was meant to be a “chaos director,” and that’s what I am, that’s what I did. I was Director during a chaotic time. I was trying to figure out how to navigate the Living Building Challenge, campaigns and Bicentennial projects all while managing the Center. I think it’s ready for somebody that can steer the ship straight and keep moving toward our mission.

I’m excited to turn over the reins. It’s going to be very sad and it’s certainly bittersweet. I’ve just grown to be completely head over heels in love with this place. It’ll be a difficult move, but I think the Center is ready and I’m ready.

CH: Sixteen years is a really long time. What stands out to you as something that’s been the most rewarding part of your work at Cope?

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In recent years we’ve put a lot of energy into changing how people who live in Richmond talk about our city.

If you look at projects like Positively Richmond, A Bright Side, Stellar Communities and the social media feeds of many community leaders, you’ll see it. Great profiles of impressive and exciting things happening here. Recognition of individual achievements. And celebrations of what the area has to offer.

I think that has in turn prompted others to share stories of the positive things they encounter about life in Richmond. More people seem to claim their identity as a proud Richmond resident, at least more than might have just a few years ago. (My essay “Why did I stay in Richmond?” has been one of the most liked and responded to on this site.)

These efforts came about a number of different ways. In general it seems we came to understand that some people here had a consistently negative perception about the condition of their city.  And we realized that if the only story being publicly told about Richmond was a negative one, our economic and tourism development efforts could be seriously undermined.

Combatting uninformed negativity is important.  A little improvement in self-image can go a long way toward making visitors feel welcome, and maybe even like spending more money. We are making progress, and we should thank the many people who have helped turn this community conversation around.

We also have to be careful with positivity. A negative self-image isn’t something that can only be addressed through a louder, more polished promotion of a positive alternative narrative. A narrow-minded focus on positivity could drown out the need to address real, complicated problems with solutions that require time, money and hard work. Too much positive thinking can lead to unrealistic expectations and disappointment, or drain us of the energy we need to reach our goals.

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Legislating neighborliness

The recent headlines about a proposed change to Richmond’s barking dog ordinance highlights a lesson that I think many communities still have to learn: if you’ve come to the point of legislating neighborliness, you’ve already lost.

The moment after we codify specific quiet hours and acceptable barking durations into law, someone will point out a scenario or an exception where the law doesn’t make sense. What about someone who works third shift and is sleeping during the day? What about parents desperately trying to get a young child to sleep for a mid-day nap? What about…

It’s probably important to have some kind of ordinance on the books that empowers the City to handle the most egregious offenders. But I would hope that before turning to the legalistic imperatives of a law in order to get someone living near us to reduce the noise their dog (or lawnmower, or leaf blower, or party guests) is making, we would start a little more simply: with a direct conversation.

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State of the City

I had the honor of being in the studio audience tonight as Mayor Dave Snow gave his State of the City address. The speech was broadcast live and you can also watch the full video replay from Whitewater Community Television on WGTV.

A few things stood out to me:

First, it was unexpectedly refreshing to hear a political office holder speak with such clarity, maturity and specificity about the successes and challenges facing a community. Maybe I’ve been listening to too many state and national politicians talk lately, but I continue to appreciate Mayor Snow’s style of communication as one that celebrates the good, acknowledges the things that are hard, and encourages action from everyone involved, all without the fluff or hyperbole that has become too common in political speech.

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