By Eleanor Kennedy
If the Lynchburg region wants to attract new business and bolster economic development, the challenges of ease of access and a lack of project-ready sites will need to be overcome.
That’s the message consultant Jay Garner delivered to the Lynchburg Economic Development Authority, members of the business community and other local government officials during the EDA retreat Thursday at the Academy of Fine Arts.
The EDA has hired Garner, who heads site selection consulting firm Garner Economics, to help devise a new strategic plan for the authority.
Garner, who has worked both on the public and private side of economic development, said the site selection process is largely based on eliminating localities that don’t have what a company needs. Because there are thousands of places to choose from, he said, companies look for locations where they can keep costs down and develop quickly.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” he said.
Although Lynchburg has many assets in the “quality of place” category, including good schools, affordable housing and strong public safety, Garner said the city’s “Achilles heel” is its lack of project-ready land.
Because companies want to get their businesses up and running as quickly as possible, Garner said, they are more likely to choose localities with sites available for immediate development. That’s something Lynchburg doesn’t have, he said.
There’s also the challenge of ease of access to the area. According to data Garner presented, interstate access typically is the top priority for a company looking for a new site. Air travel is key for many industries, Garner said, and several cities across the country have chosen to subsidize airlines to maintain service.
After Garner’s presentation, City Council member H. Cary, who attended the retreat, said he was pleased to hear Lynchburg gets high marks on quality-of-life factors, but added it was clear more must be done to bolster its appeal on other fronts.
Luring a second airline, intensifying marketing efforts and offering more attractive incentive packages all are critical concerns, he said, although each comes with a worrisome price tag.
“Clearly, if we’re going to make progress, we’re going to need a commitment of more funding,” Cary said. “But whether or not we have the resources for that remains to be seen.”
Cary said he was intrigued by the consultant’s mention of Texas, where localities are allowed to charge a 1 percent sales tax to support economic development work. Texas programs are well funded as a result and the state led the nation in new business projects between 2009 and 2011, Garner said.
Cary said he’d like to discuss the approach and plans to raise the issue with the local General Assembly delegation.
After Garner’s public presentation, he met with members of the authority to talk more specifically and answer their questions on how Lynchburg can bolster development. A few months from now, he said, his firm will provide the authority with a full report, including long-term goals, companies and types of businesses that should be targeted and an overall plan for improving economic development efforts.
In the short term, he said, the authority should focus on acquiring property to create project-ready sites and building up both local and regional marketing efforts.