An additional staffer to assist in business retention and expansion could go a long way in regard to the success of economic development in Shenandoah County, according to Jenna French, the county’s Director of Tourism and Economic Development.
French presented an economic development budget proposal to the county Industrial Development Authority on Friday as a means of keeping the group in the loop. The proposal focuses on the addition of a staffer as well as investing in talent attraction and business retention.
Requests have been presented to county administration, but final proposals, which include dollar amounts as well as more specific detail, aren’t finalized yet.
The proposal will be worked over by county administration before being presented to the Board of Supervisors for approval, which would come April 13 with the rest of the Fiscal Year 2022 budget for the county.
The budget proposal begins with looking back at the 2019 Strategic Plan, French said. That plan has a big focus on increased outreach and education for the public, which lets folks know why the county invests in economic development, why it’s important and understanding balance.
“Some people think of economic development and think that it’s converting the entire county into industry. That’s not our goal,” French said via phone Monday. “That’s why that strategic plan was so important. It was really getting a sense from the residents here in the county about what they want the county to look like. That’s going to steer our plans and our efforts that we ensure that we strike that balance.”
Other focuses of that 2019 plan include workforce development, quality of life, enhanced regional collaboration and improving overall competitiveness that allows current businesses to thrive as well as attracting new companies.
Just as it was last year, a big part of this year’s budget request is an additional staffer.
French’s office handles tourism and economic development, so the three-person staff is sometimes stretched thin, she said.
Typically, the tourism and economic development staff aren't able to regularly communicate with or meet with every business in the county. The COVID-19 pandemic brought that to light, and French said she hopes to change that moving forward, starting with the addition of a new staff member.
The main focus of that job would be business retention and expansion.
“When we look at this past year, it becomes even more important and more relevant as to why that component of our job is so important,” French said. “It’s one thing to attract new businesses here — and we certainly want to do that, we want to increase jobs — but a lot of people don’t realize that typically you’ll see more investment and more local job creation by the businesses that are already in your community. So we want to help them grow and be successful instead of focusing on landing the big fish to come and relocate in our community.”
With that, French would also like to focus on talent attraction and retention.
“What we’ve seen out of economic development over the last few years is that it used to be that people moved because of where their job was. We’re finding that people are choosing where they want to live and companies are now following the people and locating where the population bases are,” she said. “It’s sort of reversed itself."
This makes quality of life a vital aspect of economic development.
“Then we can rest assured that when we attract a company looking to hire people, we have people here to fill those jobs,” she said.
The tourism and economic development office is already working with regional partners on this, including the Shenandoah Valley Partnership, which has a website based around information that those who are looking to move to the area would be looking for.
French said the budget process this year has been different, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said there are still uncertainties, within tourism especially.
Still, she used familiar budget strategies when assembling the budget proposal.
“Sometimes I think people look at the county and think that we’re just adding on additional spending. But I really look at where we have money allocated that we’re not spending and is it necessary. Or maybe it’s something that’s always been in our budget, but it’s not as relevant or not a priority anymore,” she said. “Where can we take away from and shift dollars to realign with what our current goals are?”
She knows numbers will change and aspects will be redirected, but French said she hopes to see things come together.
“It’s a very long-term game. We make investment now for something you my not see the payoff for 10 or 20 years,” she said. “Economic development is not a one-player game. It takes all of us working together and having one cohesive vision to be successful.”