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Mary Beth Bass: Going global in a regional economy

One of the least understood or perhaps least appreciated objectives of One Sumter is to, “establish regional partnerships to accelerate economic development;” or its similar counterpart, “develop and implement regional economic development marketing strategy.”
There are a lot of good reasons for this, as questions immediately abound. What exactly does this mean? Why is it the business of One Sumter to do such a thing? How do you define regional, and once you do, which region? Shouldn’t we worry about our own backyard before we go playing in someone else’s sandbox? And, moreover, how does one go about doing such a thing?
I could spend an entire day answering each of these questions but, for the purposes of this article, let me hone in on a brief response for why it matters and what we are doing to address those mandated objectives from the business community of Sumter County.
My first guess is that they received some good guidance when writing the Business Action Plan.  I take no pride of ownership or authorship in that document, as it was written well before I was hired to implement the Plan. The priority given to regional economic development is clear.
We all know, economic development follows no geopolitical boundaries and companies care very little for whose county they reside within so long as they have access to the workforce, services and transportation options they need to transport their product — unless of course there are very good incentives involved, and that could be a whole other article unto itself.
In our beloved home of South Georgia, it frequently takes multiple counties, even if unofficially, to make a project work. While the project may locate in one community, the workforce undoubtedly comes from multiple counties, and it is likely a neighboring community might have better housing options for the company’s management team, while the school system may be stronger somewhere else, and the shopping and retail amenities that constitute “quality of life,” may be two counties over. Instead of a village, economic development often takes a region.
There are a lot of challenges with this approach: 1) We are not geared to think this way as a society, and rarely does our state set up structures for our governments to think or operate in this manner; and 2) It is usually difficult for cities and counties within one countywide jurisdiction to get along and have a common vision, much less an entire multi-county region. With the most competitive people I have ever worked with, economic developers, at the helm, it’s amazing regionalism EVER works!
However, the economic developers of South Georgia have been quietly building a coalition of regional economic development thought leaders to drive this initiative across a 21-county region of South Georgia with a group called “Locate South Georgia.” Made up of the region’s economic development professionals (think, executive directors of development authorities and presidents/CEOs of Chambers of Commerce), along with their statewide affiliates (Electric Cities of Georgia, Georgia Power Company, AT&T, Georgia EMC, Diverse Power, Georgia Chamber of Commerce, Georgia Department of Economic Development, and Georgia Department of Community Affairs); South Georgia is truly leading the pack and knocking out homeruns for their communities due to their forward thinking approach to regional economic development. Marketing together at national trade shows for targeted industrial sectors that are primed to locate within the South Georgia area and hosting developers and statewide project managers at events throughout the year, they share the spoils of marketing all of our assets and communities together. They even share the heartache — a great example exists of an industry closing in one county within the last year, and several other communities from throughout the region reaching out and making sure all of those workers had employment elsewhere in order to mitigate hardship for those families, as well as the overall economy of the region.
In 2014, Locate South Georgia, in partnership with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at the University of Georgia, launched an ambitious planning effort to look at the unique challenges faced across that 21-county region of Georgia. Yes, of course economic development was a priority, but perhaps more importantly,  those economic development professionals realized that in order for their efforts to be successful they had to raise up a “crop” of business and civic leaders that understood the importance of regionalism itself, AND who also had the wherewithal to be able to articulate the assets of the region and speak intelligently to the challenges we face. They had to be brand ambassadors, they had to understand the legislative and political implications of what is happening across our region, and they had to be able to speak to the mission of Locate South Georgia and the vibrating life that is South Georgia.
Launching the state’s largest regional economic development program in 2016, Locate South GeorgiaLEADS is the fruit of their 18-month planning effort. Graduating a class of 32 leaders in March of this year, they are moving forward aggressively with another cohort of 35 business and civic leaders to go through the eight-month leadership experience yet again, starting next week. Quick math will tell you, that’s 21 economic developers, plus some 10 or so affiliates that make up the original effort — coupled with the inaugural class of 32 and the next cohort of 34 — giving you close to 100 individuals in just three years driving the economic message of South Georgia at every opportunity. No small feat!
In the driver’s seat, at least of the leadership development component, building the coalition, is One Sumter.
Visiting communities across the region during each eight-month experience, One Sumter is establishing the partnerships to tell the stories of the region and leveraging the resources of the University of Georgia to instill the critical leadership competencies to strengthen the leadership base of the region now and in the years to come. Leadership is one of those things that’s difficult to measure your return on investment, but the impact, if done correctly, can make one of the biggest differences in an individual’s life and in the life of a community, or in this case, region.
For Locate South GeorgiaLEADS (LSGL), these rising leaders are creating their own fate as they push the agenda for economic growth and partnership across the region.  I often talk about my favorite theory of leadership, relational leadership, and LSGL is a great example of that at work. The networks built and relationships established are already bearing fruit for the region and Sumter County. As a result of the program and exposure to the assets, one of Sumter County’s homegrown manufacturers is already assisting with product development for another company that is based out of a community 75 miles away — leading to more production, more innovation, hopefully more job creation, and certainly more revenue for the companies and tax generation for the communities.
I’ll close with what I think is the most powerful story to date about LSGL, an email from a Locate South GeorgiaLEADS alumni, who also serves as the executive director of the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Development Authority.:
“Good morning to you all. Attached is a picture of my new friends Jonathan and Kelvin from Kenya. They have been sent to the U.S. (1st visit) by a Kenyan based company that the Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County Development Authority currently has two projects in the works. They arrived in Fitzgerald the last week of June and will be flying out of Atlanta on July 27 at 5 p.m. with goals of learning as much as they can about peanut production. They hope to one day be at the forefront of growing peanuts in their homeland. Another company committed to having the young men come to Fitzgerald yet due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the agenda planned for the young men had to be cancelled at the last minute. By last minute, I mean while they were literally in the air and en route to the United States. With that and with two-day’s notice, their next 30 days fell into my lap.
“With the relationship that we are building with the company that sent them here, I knew it would be awfully embarrassing and detrimental to our projects should Jonathan and Kelvin’s objectives not be met.
“So, I immediately reached out to my LSGL 2017 classmate, Sandra Giles [Tift County, ABAC] who started a Facebook conversation with two peanut scientists at the UGA Ag Experiment Station. Within the hour, we had a meeting set up with one of UGA’s leading authorities on growing peanuts outside the U.S. This meeting led to scheduling a July 18th field day that will see the young men working alongside the scientists. In addition, Sandra has arranged a July 17th meeting for them to meet a Kenyan professor that teaches at ABAC. Last week, Tommie Beth Willis, another LSGL 2017 classmate hosted us in Moultrie at the Sunbelt Expo field day. Once again, the young men had an exceptional day meeting [Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner] Gary Black and other leading authorities in Georgia’s ag industry.
“I could go on and provide further details, yet to make a long story short, these young men literally showed up in Fitzgerald with no set agenda, and within no time, LSGL 2017 was very instrumental in constructing an itinerary that has been second to none. In addition, they have met 2017 alumni William Hancock [Dougherty County, Realtor], and later today, they will meet Mackenzie Bennett [Coffee County, Chamber], another alumnus.
“There travels have seen them visit Fitzgerald, Tifton, Moultrie, Fort Valley State (hosted by who we hope will be in the LSGL 2018 class) and later today, they will be in Douglas. All along, LSGL’s presence has accompanied them.
“In short, the program is doing what was planned to do.  We’ve gone global all the while strengthening south Georgia relationships.”

Mary Beth Bass is executive director, One Sumter Foundation Inc., Americus.