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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Are tech jobs real jobs?

I recently heard someone describe an apparently pervasive perception that technology jobs aren’t “real” jobs. I think the narrative goes something like this:

People in tech don’t really make things or produce things, they just sit around at computers all day. There’s nothing to really show for their work or for the surrounding community to be proud of. Tech companies tend to hire and grow a handful of people at a time. What we need are real jobs where a big factory opens and a bunch of people are trained to do real work producing real things that everyone can actually see. And then that will attract other factories and a bunch more people will get hired.

It’s an appealing narrative in an area that has its history in making “real” things in shops and factories. I really value the ability to do something with my hands, to make something physical and tangible that people can see. I admire people who are skilled in the manipulation of tools, machines, materials to create beautiful, functional, complex parts of our built world.

But I think we can appreciate this kind of work and at the same time appreciate a newer way of producing, creating and making a living that can be just as valuable to our economy and life as a city.

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