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?
VS: It’s really difficult, honestly, because we’re not in this alone. Typically our economic cycles are trending along with the state of Indiana and the country, and so everyone kind of rides the high tide together and then has to suffer through the low tide. Benchmarks can be difficult, but ones commonly looked at are the unemployment rates, the number of people who are getting back to work within the community, and educational attainment. In order to remain competitive we have to have the skillsets needed by various industry sectors, and so having a diverse population with varying degrees of expertise in specific areas is really important.
Our population size is a huge benchmark that we have been losing at over the last several decades. We had our peak in the 1970s, and since then we’ve been on a continual decline. That’s where the quality of life initiatives come into place, trying to retain our talented people and then attract more to come and live, and work in this community. There are about 4,500 regional residents that commute into Wayne County to work every day. We are the only net importer of workers in this region. Thinking about why aren’t they living here, trying to figure out what amenities we are missing that would encourage them to both live and work here in Wayne County is something that’s puzzling, but that we’re trying to address all the time.
CH: One set of numbers you talk about with any given incentive is jobs retained and jobs created. The jobs retained one can seem tricky, because from a layperson’s perspective you wonder if those jobs would stay, regardless of whether the incentive is offered. How does the EDC track and audit those kinds of assertions that a company can make about job retention when you’re considering an incentive recommendation?
VS: Business outreach is our number one priority here, and we’re meeting with our existing businesses on a regular basis. We build relationships with company executives, plant managers and HR managers, to the point where they are respectful of the information and the claims that they’re giving. If it is a retention project, we ask them to demonstrate to us how or why these jobs are threatened to leave the community if not for the incentives that might be offered. In many circumstances they can demonstrate to us that this is a competitive project considering another location and that they’re looking to consolidate operations. Other times it’s a piece of equipment where if they do not invest in it and don’t have any assistance in doing so, they might not be able to run that line any further.
There’s no magic way of doing it. In a lot of ways it’s the honor system, but you tend to have a gut feeling about these things going into it. And then through additional conversations and explanations you’re able to really justify that it is an actual retention of jobs.
CH: Has there ever been, whether through the EDC or just elsewhere in the area, someone who’s exercised a clawback provision that has said, “Okay, you didn’t follow through on this, we’re going to get these funds back” – does that happen?
VS: There are circumstances where we could. We do have clawback provisions in our incentive agreement for anyone who’s getting an EDIT grant or a TIF bond, and it does state that the company has to maintain the job projections for a specific amount of years. There are many factors that are outside of their control, both locally, nationally, or internationally within their industry sector, and so we have some leeway within that.
There have only been a handful of circumstances where a company has not met their employment projections or their investment projections. Oftentimes we’ll look at granting a three to six month extension of their compliance period where we’re giving them more time to reach their project goals. In some circumstances they can’t find a key employee and are waiting to find that right person. In the case of Sugar Creek we just extended their compliance period for another two years. Because of the sewer issues that they’re having at the plant, they literally cannot add any more production lines where they add people in order to expand the company. That’s a constraint that’s outside of their control that we’re working hard to address at this time.
CH: Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be doing this kind of work, or did you come to it through a different path?
VS: Honestly I just fell into it. I went to college at IU East here, and I was working at a local real estate company throughout college. In 2005 there was a natural progression for me to go from being a receptionist in real estate to an administrative assistant here at the EDC. As staff left I just continued to learn new roles and work my way through the organization, serving as Office Manager, and then Manager of New Business Attractions, and then eventually Vice President of Business Development, which rolled in the business retention and expansion component. Then I went to work for the State of Indiana’s Economic Development Corporation for a year, before I came back to lead the EDC. It was really through learning experience that I fell in love with the industry.
CH: What is the most rewarding part of your work and your role here?
VS: Certainly putting people back to work, being an entity that’s helping to facilitate job creation. I often correct people and let them know the EDC does not create jobs. The government does not create jobs. We are simply a facilitator and help to form key partnerships to make that happen. It’s really rewarding to work on a project for six, nine, twelve months and then finally be present at that announcement point and know that you’re making a difference in the community.
CH: What is the hardest part of what you do?
VS: Trying to know that the direction we’re going is the right one. No two circumstances, no two projects are ever the same, so you have to apply past experiences and use your gut a lot of times. We get trolled by companies who act as if they’re expanding and want to invest when you know they just want incentives. If that’s the first topic that comes out of their mouth, you know that this is not a real deal. The work we do is challenging. There’s no clear cut answer to a lot of things that occur.
CH: Some people from Richmond probably feel apprehensive about investing in economic development when they think about the old hospital building and the progression of events there. When you’re doing some initial screening for someone who’s calling and saying, “we’re interested,” where’s the B.S. detector in that conversation, and how do you know when to say, “No thank you,” and hang up?
VS: Well, Google is my best friend, as well as LinkedIn. If you get a person’s name and you can’t directly affiliate them with a company, that’s often a red flag. If there’s no news about the company, if there’s never anything in a newspaper, or if they don’t have a website, that’s a red flag.
I also rely on the Indiana Economic Development Corporation and their legal team. They’ll do some due diligence on a company and really dig into it.
CH: What personally helps you the most in finding perspective and grounding in the midst of high-stakes work that I imagine can get pretty stressful?
VS: I like to travel and experience new cities. I try to look at other communities through a fresh lens and try to envision if we could sustain a specific type of program or development that they have going on. Outside of work, I love to play volleyball, love to spend time with my friends and family. One of the reasons I’m still in Richmond is because I was born and raised here. I have very strong roots, very large family that are still here. I just love to be involved in their lives and be a part of their support system.
CH: Did the Japan trip bring good perspective?
VS: I think it did. In Japan they very much value the personal relationship coming before the business relationship. It’s about getting to know people in a different way and being so polite and thoughtful about your intentions. The gift is a huge deal over there, and so trying to find a right gift that means something, that demonstrates your appreciation for their investment here or consideration for an investment. Being more thoughtful about my intentions and focusing on the little things that could make us stand out has been at the forefront.
CH: You recently went through a contract and salary renegotiation. Can you say anything about what that was like, and do you have any advice for other professionals (especially those who are women) when it comes to being valued well in those kinds of conversations?
VS: It can always be difficult when you’re put in a position of justifying your worth. In this circumstance I was fortunate to have a very strong board behind me. I did not demand that salary, I did not ask for it, it was presented to me. As a professional it’s very flattering when you’re presented with that opportunity, but I struggled with the public perception, being in the public eye. If you don’t, I think that’s when you lose sight that this is your community, and you want them to be supportive of the work that you’re doing.
It’s hard as a young professional when lots of other leadership comes from a different generation. Ensuring that I’m gaining their respect and that they value my opinion, that’s always something that I strive for. It was very disheartening to see some of the negative comments that were made about the salary proposal, but I did get hired in a much lower salary level than my predecessors.
I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to serve and represent Wayne County. I hope that my role in the community will offer encouragement to other women who may be considering a leadership position within their organization.
CH: The EDC has struggled in the past with public perception. I’m sure it’s always going to be a struggle when you’re talking about tax dollars and people are seeing you through headlines, but do you feel like the EDC’s presence and message in the community is in a good place?
VS: Yes. If you compare how others viewed the organization six or seven years ago, I think we’re light years ahead of where we were.
One of my main priorities is to communicate with our stakeholders. I’m out speaking with county, city and town councils, speaking to service organizations, trying to be receptive to meeting requests to help educate people about what we do. I communicate very frequently with the newspaper and the radio stations. I never turn down a question or an opportunity. I try to be as transparent as we possibly can, outside of actual names of prospects and things like that. Having had three bosses here in the past, I really learned a lot from the good they did, but also from the mistakes that they made, and I try to apply that in the work that I’m doing.
A lot of comments I see online are based on misinformation. Some people say that they think we’re ignoring the negative, and that is not the case at all. The work that we do on a daily basis is addressing the negative. We also have to keep positivity on the forefront, because negativity spreads like wildfire – it sells newspapers, it enhances click-through rates, and if we don’t counteract that with the good that’s going on in the community, our citizens won’t value the community in which they live in.
CH: What are you hearing in your conversations about Richmond and Wayne County right now that gives you the most hope for the future?
VS: There’s a lot of investment being made right now in all sectors of the economy. Our contractors are extremely busy, and that’s always a good sign of a stronger economy. I’m very encouraged that we have development projects in all facets of the community, whether it’s the streetscape projects, the bike paths connecting to the Cardinal Greenway, the Depot District and our downtown, to the investment in the mall that’s being made. In manufacturing we’re seeing a lot of movement in real estate with older industrial buildings that have been on the market for a long time getting close to new ownership and revitalization as well as the construction of Blue Buffalo’s manufacturing plant beginning to take shape. Seeing all of this investment and progress of projects that have been in the pipeline finally begin to move forward is very encouraging.
All of the hiring that’s going on, both by new companies coming and by our existing employers, it’s very encouraging to see. We also have a lot going on to try to elevate the skills of our workforce.
All of those things kind of moving forward in a positive direction together I think will make a huge impact.
CH: If someone does have suggestions, concerns or questions about the EDC, what should they do to get more involved and make sure their voice is heard?
VS: They can call or email me at any time. They can also reach out to the EDC board of directors who serve to help educate our citizens about the work that we are doing. The EDC board is made up of appointments from all across Wayne County including Centerville, Cambridge City, Hagerstown and Richmond. I encourage citizens to have conversations and be engaged in the community in one way or another. Our board meetings are also open to the public. Meeting dates and times can be found on our website.