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A Day in the Life of an economic development director

The “Day in the Life” series gives an insider’s look at the professions that make South Carolina cities and towns great places to live, work and play. Municipal employees from around the state explain their role, discuss challenges they face and share interesting stories from the unique world of municipal government service.

As part of a series of articles on the duties and responsibilities of municipal employees, we spoke with four different economic development directors. These professionals are responsible for attracting and retaining businesses, community development, and planning.

Wade Luther has been with the City of Camden for four years - the first year as downtown manager, the next three as economic development director. Before his work in Camden, he was a planning consultant in the private sector and a land development planner for the City of North Myrtle Beach.

The duties of an economic development director vary greatly from day to day, Luther said.
 
“One minute you are managing an engineering project, the next working with various tourism agencies on marketing plans or assisting a potential small business in finding a location downtown,” Luther said. “The job responsibilities cover a wide spectrum of duties from project management to policy development and implementation, to marketing, tourism, business retention, recruitment and expansion.”

“It is not a profession you can go into with tunnel vision. You must be aware of how the economy applies to all aspects of your community and others, and be a little bit of an expert on everything,” he said.

Nancy Whitworth agrees. She has been in economic development with the City of Greenville for more than 30 years, serving as director since 1992. During her tenure, Whitworth has seen the demands and expectations of an economic development professional in a municipal setting increase. 

“There is pressure from all constituencies – elected officials, neighborhood groups, businesses, developers – to get it right! The skill set of a successful local economic developer must adapt and change as the demands and expectations change,” Whitworth said. “Keeping the process transparent, while maintaining appropriate confidentiality, can test even the most seasoned professional. It’s also about maintaining a sense of urgency along with a healthy dose of patience.”

Others may not realize that interpersonal skills play such a large role in business development, Luther said.

“The most important part of business development in our small city is building relationships,” Luther said. “Without those key relationships and partnerships in place, the rest of your economic development strategies will remain idle.”

Indeed, relationships are vital to the job of economic development, Whitworth said. 
“One often assumes it is important to understand the technical aspects of the profession, but the ability to work with others, communicate effectively and employ the gentle art of persuasion have much more to do with success,” she said. 

For Whitworth, a day at the office could involve her working on a major downtown development project, responding to a request for information from a prospect, helping solve a variety of business concerns, or holding a neighborhood meeting to discuss a redevelopment project. Her role also includes planning, community development, and building and environmental codes.

Whitworth thinks most people do not realize that everyone in local government is in the business of economic development.

“Greenville’s effectiveness in economic development is a result of providing superior levels of service and ensuring that Greenville is a great place to live and do business. It is a ‘can do’ spirit that permeates throughout the departments and allows us, who are charged with economic development, to be able to tap into a depth of resources,” she said. “We in economic development might be the face, but it is all of our city departments that make it work. I also think that the link back to the city also ensures that we evaluate incentives not just from the standpoint of making the deal but also as to the long-term impact of a particular project – it gives that added level of accountability.”

Luther said he did not expect there to be so much collaboration between communities on developing economic development programs, policies and projects. In fact, staff members in surrounding communities are very eager to share their experiences and give advice to help further each city’s economic development goals, he said.

Although new business recruiting tends to get the most public attention, others may be surprised to learn that business retention is one of the most important functions of the job, said Reno Deaton, who has been the executive director of the Greer Development Corporation since 2007. Before that, he served as executive director of the Carroll County Community Development Corporation in Kentucky.

“We spend a great deal of time and effort working with existing businesses and industries to understand the nature of their business, the challenges that they face, and the strategies that are available to help them to eliminate and overcome those challenges,” he said.

Deaton said his work at the Greer Development Corporation includes four areas of focus:  business retention, new business recruiting, marketing and product development. Most of his days include work in each of these focus areas and usually involve a series of meetings, phone calls and emails with internal and external partners including consultants, industry professionals, industrial and commercial prospects, staff from the county and state economic development agencies, real estate brokers, bankers, utility providers, and staff of the City of Greer and Greer Commission of Public Works.

Deaton’s organization provides staff support for the Partnership for Tomorrow, a community-based, public-private partnership that maintains an independent program of work that includes economic development, quality of life initiatives, and community master planning. They also assist the Greer Station Association, the historic downtown merchants’ association.
 
Donna Smith started working for the City of West Columbia as the director of economic development in August 2005. Before that, she held a similar role with the Town of Lexington, in conjunction with being the executive director of the Lexington Economic Development Association. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she was the director of business services for the Virginia Peninsula Economic Development Council. 
 
Donna Smith
“In economic development, there is no ‘instant gratification.’”
Donna Smith, economic developer, City of West Columbia
 
For Smith, a day at work may consist of administering and inspecting ongoing grant projects; meeting with contractors, engineers and SCDOT representatives; talking to various business owners and potential owners; researching property information for commercial realtors and/or businesses – including zoning information and water and sewer availability; talking to businesses and homeowners groups about annexation; and attending ribbon cuttings and grand openings.

The most significant factor on business development over the last decade, Smith said, is the change in banking standards. “Loans once fairly easily obtained for most businesses are now at a premium,” explained Smith.

Smith said that when she started working for the City of West Columbia, her biggest surprise was her level of involvement in the grants she secured. At other jobs, she wrote and secured grants, but the administration was done by someone else. In West Columbia, Smith not only writes the grant application, but she also administers the grant and is the on-site project manager.

“I’ve worked directly with engineers and contractors and am responsible for the design aspects of the project. I have been involved with such details as selecting the brick and granite for signs and water features, and selecting flowers, trees and shrubs, paint colors for façade renovations, and streetlight fixtures,” she said.

Despite the challenges, these economic development professionals say they feel rewarded by their contributions to the community.

Smith relishes seeing a project come to fruition.

“In economic development, there is no ‘instant gratification.’ Many months and years can go into preparing for the project, so whether it’s landing a new business or completing a business façade renovations project, when the ribbon is finally cut, you know you’ve put in a lot of hard work and it’s finally paid off,” she said. 

Deaton said he enjoys being part of a team of partners in the Greer community, at the state and county level, and the private sector, who work together well to facilitate new job creation and the attraction of new capital investment. For Whitworth, the most rewarding part of the job is seeing how her contributions have led to positive changes in the lives of others, whether through new jobs created or retained or through the public and private investments that have created wonderful public spaces. 

Luther said he takes pride in a completed project.

“Not only can I look back and say I took part in that, but a whole cast of people can make that same claim,” Luther said. “We can all look back and take satisfaction in the fact that we worked together and we left behind something that will make this community a better place.”