I was on doing a telephone consultation with a new client recently when she went dead silent.
"Are you still there?
Long pause. I waited it out.
"Well," she ventured, "what if we don't really want to show all our data?"
"What do you mean? What data would you leave out?"
"It's just that the data on household income and educational attainment doesn't reflect very well on our community. We'd rather just leave it off of our GIS Planning tool altogether."
I understood where she was coming from. After all, most economic developers are proud of the communities they represent and they worry that evidence of socio-economic struggle might scare investors away. They either avoid putting online data tools on their websites altogether, or inquire about strategically omitting some of the data.
Kind of like airbrushing your profile picture to erase last night's insomnia or the grey hair or wrinkles that make a person distinctively them. And as with that sneaky photoshopping of pictures, leaving out the data fools no one.
In fact, it is more likely to hurt your prospects of attracting investment to your location. Let me explain: When a business is seeking the right location for their business, they have a pretty good idea of the general socio-economic condition of most regions. Site selectors and businesses will search for data to make their decisions, but trying to hide it from them certainly isn't going to help matters. In fact, what this economic developer was missing was the way her region could be seen as ripe with opportunity for the right business. Whether for retail, industry or business, there are many reasons this region could be attractive to the right employer.
First, what you may see as a problem a business may see as an opportunity. For example, you may have high unemployment in your community because of the recent closure of a large manufacturing company that recently closed which also resulted in a high vacancy rate for manufacturing buildings. From one perspective these may be uncomfortable or embarrassing economic and demographic realities that your community might see as problematic for your public relations. But for a manufacturing company looking for a highly-skilled manufacturing labor force and a manufacturing facility that is already available, what you may see as a problem looks like a wonderful solution to them. Hiding the data that shows this opportunity from a company that is looking for exactly a community like yours could cause you to miss the opportunity. It can be just the same for many other demographic, firmographic, geographic, and economic characteristics. Low household incomes might represent low cost of doing business to the right company. Low education levels may be exactly what a company that does not want or need college educated employees is looking for. Your problem may actually be your opportunity but you need to allow the data to make your opportunity discoverable.
Second, we all live in an Internet age in which information about communities can be found. Businesses can find some information from you and other information they will find other places on the Internet like your local newspaper, blogger, or other information sources. You cannot trick businesses into coming to your community by hiding your demographic, industry, economic, or geographic challenges and then surprising them with them once they’ve opened their business. If the business is that gullible they won’t be in business very long and what would be even worse is the media around a business coming to your community and closing. A more proactive strategy is to make your economic development organization the source of information on the Internet so that you are seen as an authority on information about your community. This positions you as a resource the business can go to for additional information and when you make contact you can further explain the nuances about your community and the data about it.
Businesses are smart and getting smarter. They have to so they can stay in business and remain competitive. Sharing data, including potentially uncomfortable data, makes you more trustworthy. No business thinks any community is perfect. What they are looking for is the right community that best meets their needs.
Therefore, it's far better to present the data about your location front and center. Then delve into it with the analytical tools your tool provides in order to present different business cases, to write up the opportunity that awaits. This kind of proactive approach to the data that defines your community is far more likely to be successful at attracting the attention of the right opportunity.
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