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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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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Prophets Fest

For seven years now, family-friendly music festival Prophets Fest has attracted many hundreds of people from around the region to a beautiful local farm just south of Richmond. Once there, they camp, eat, dance and enjoy the offerings of several different bands under the summer sky – reggae, funk, world music, electronic, jazz and many other kinds of sound.

The next Prophets Fest is coming up on Saturday, August 22nd and tickets are available now. It’s an impressive event and unlike anything else I’ve seen in the area, so I sat down with one of its organizers, Nick Green, to talk about why the event exists, what you might expect if you go, and what it’s like to put together this unusual local cultural offering in Richmond Indiana.

Listen here:

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