By Bob Rolfe, TNECD commissioner
For economic developers, the ground has shifted under our feet. With the novel coronavirus, our tried and tested methods require a fresh look, and the communities who can adapt to the new normal will have a leg up.
As part of my job as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD), I have traveled the globe to meet with prospective business clients.
Whether I am meeting with a global manufacturer, a leading technology company or an innovative healthcare firm, I always stress that Tennessee offers businesses unparalleled advantages. As a former Tennessee business owner, I can attest to the benefits of our state’s skilled workforce, low tax structure and close proximity to customers and clients across the United States. Through free technical college and higher education programs, Tennessee is also committed to forward thinking workforce development solutions. We have a thriving health care ecosystem, world-renowned entertainment brands and a robust advanced manufacturing industry.
Yet with the global spread of COVID-19, the nature of international recruiting has changed. Face-to-face meetings with corporate decision makers are temporarily not as feasible with travel restrictions and other safety measures in place.
Many colleagues and constituents have asked me, “How are you marketing Tennessee and ensuring it remains top of mind among the businesses that are seeking a home for a new manufacturing plant or a U.S. headquarters?”
My simple answer is this: Tennessee is diving headlong into new digital tools and technology. I will get to the ways we are using video conferencing for virtual site visits in a moment. But first, I want to mention our robust suite of online tools. Long before the coronavirus made these tools essential, TNECD had invested in digital resources to help tell the Tennessee story. Now, we are doubling down on them.
Our department is tasked with recruiting new jobs and supporting growth for communities across Tennessee. In recent years, we’ve made it a priority to invest in digital resources to provide site selectors and corporate decision makers with a wealth of information. As economic development adjusts, we know having these offerings is critical for the site selection process.
This all begins with our marketing website, TNECD.com. In 2018, we launched a new redesign that is built on dynamic content, adapting to a user’s behavior and creating a completely customized experience for each visitor.
Our website is a gateway for countless resources. We have a host of interactive industry dashboards, which track historic economic trends across Tennessee. TNECD’s Select Tennessee Certified Sites are all featured online, complete with interactive maps, aerial drone videos of sites and other technical videos. This inventory of sites has been accredited through a rigorous process, and I can assure the dozens of industrial sites found here meet the highest quality standards around.
Once you have identified a potential industrial site, our county profile tool zeroes in on a range of metrics, including the local labor pool, key industry clusters as well as the percentage of higher-ed degree holders, among other data.
Additionally, we’ve also developed a new virtual tool to explore qualified opportunity zones in Tennessee. After the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, we realized there was no way to easily navigate the qualified opportunity zone tracts in Tennessee or find investment funds. We solved these problems with a clean, functional and organized directory. Users can search the directory to find funds and projects across Tennessee’s 176 opportunity zone tracts and also submit a potential project or fund. Community development goes hand in hand with our job recruiting, and we’re confident that our new opportunity zones platform can help facilitate investment in lower income communities across Tennessee.
All of these resources are at your fingertips. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize that Tennessee sees these digital tools as enhancing, rather than replacing, our hands-on, relationship-driven approach to economic development. As we all know, relationships are still vital to this business. Nothing can completely replace the trust and bonds created by a face-to-face meeting, especially in cases when I can bring Governor Bill Lee with me across the globe to meet with a CEO. But in this period of social distancing we are committed to trying our best to recreate that experience for our corporate prospects.
We all know that video conferencing has proliferated extensively in the past few months. We know your time is important, and TNECD’s team has consciously pushed to leverage this technology to make our digital meetings as productive and informative as possible. First and foremost, we see video conference as a great way to provide virtual site tours. If you cannot visit a potential industrial site, we will bring it to your computer screen or tablet.
In the past few months, my team and I have hosted numerous virtual site tours with prospective businesses. Working with our local and federal partners, we have used Google Earth to provide interactive community and real estate tours. We have taken company plans and digitally mapped out how specific sites could be developed, while showing utility locations, optimal traffic routes and nearby training resources. We are also working to show industrial sites in real-time with drones.
Our goal is to constantly fine tune and tailor these virtual site tours to a prospect’s needs. While you may not be able to step foot in Tennessee and visit our communities quite yet, I can assure you that you will still get a taste of Tennessee’s authenticity, our values, work ethic and quality of life.
Tennessee remains one of the most business-friendly states in the U.S. If your company is exploring a place to invest capital and grow, I encourage you to explore all of the online resources TNECD has to offer. From there, don’t hesitate to contact our business development staff. While our efforts look dramatically different than they did only a few months, our entire team remains committed to ensure your business finds the perfect community fit here in the Volunteer State.
About the Author
Bob Rolfe has served as TNECD commissioner since March 2017. Under his leadership, TNECD has increased Tennessee’s global footprint. During Rolfe’s tenure, he has led Tennessee’s efforts in the recruitment and expansion of over 100 international projects, which represent an investment of $5.6 billion and 18,000 job commitments. Rolfe has more than three decades of experience in business and investment banking in Tennessee. Before joining TNECD, he held the position of CEO of Medical Reimbursements of America, Inc.