Hear the word “pillars” and you envision strength, tall and straight.
There have been three pillars standing on the foundation of the Arizona Association for Economic Development. The association starts its next 40 years with a new strategic plan minted early last month by its board of directors. The timing meshes with Arizona’s exit from the dark days of the recession into recovery’s light.
“It’s a new chapter in AAED’s history,” says AAED president Eric Larson, who is also AVB Development Partners’ director of acquisitions. “We’ve invested a lot of thought into the process. This is going to move the organization forward by growing and broadening our position in Arizona.”
Larson is responsible for the first months of the plan’s implementation and is shepherding soft previews around the state this month. The association’s December 13 meeting is the formal deployment.
Firming AAED’s strategic plan as 2014 begins is fortuitous. Larson, and next year’s president Danielle Casey, economic development director for Scottsdale, envision the organization becoming the “go-to” source for economic development information and advocacy.
“The recession gave us a number of lessons about Arizona’s economy and an overdependence on home construction and real estate,” says Casey. “We need to share experience from across the state and use what we’ve learned to keep a stronger focus on a diverse and healthy economy.”
“What does AAED want to be when it grows up?” asks Larson rhetorically. “Using this as the foundation, we seriously looked at the relevancy and representativeness of our organization’s ‘pillars.’ The strategic plan answers those questions and sets out a plan for the next five years. We reinforced that our ‘three pillars’ are still what holds us up.”
The three pillars
Education, advocacy and collaboration are the three pillars raising AAED’s membership of public and private economic development professionals. The sum of the effort is improving Arizona’s economic competitiveness. While the economic development agencies — Arizona Commerce Authority, Greater Phoenix Economic Council and Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities and others — are the state’s sales representatives, AAED members are the faces of implementation.
“It’s a marriage in growing the economy,” emphasizes Angela Talbot, GPEC vice president of business development. “[ACA], GPEC and others go out and bring businesses into Arizona. It’s the collaboration that closes the deals. That impresses businesses thinking about an Arizona move.
“No matter how we represent the state to businesses in the U.S. and globally,” Talbot continues, “the local governments have to understand tax policy, effective incentives and business decision-making. AAED is the forum where all the players come together and share knowledge.”
“It’s not just that AAED puts on conferences and training seminars,” Casey says, “The members share knowledge. When I started in economic development, I had a steep learning curve. With AAED, I not only had training, but, more important, mentors. Members share experience and knowledge. We’re not competing in the AAED forum.”
“The collaboration and education is really important to my colleagues,” explains Mignonne
Hollis, executive director of the Sierra Vista Economic Development Foundation. Hollis chairs AAED’s rural committee. “AAED helps bring together rural and remote Arizona,” she says. “My markets don’t have the budgets to travel for training, AAED brings opportunities to learn to our area.” One size doesn’t fit all, she says, “but, all benefit when we bring everyone to high standards of professionalism.”
Getting training across the state is one of AAED’s major strategies. The International Economic Development Council (IEDC) is the major organization certifying economic development professionals. It offers continuing education programs certified economic developers (CEcD) are required to pass.
“IEDC is expensive, but we have to take courses every year,” says Casey. “With agency budget cuts, it’s a real burden. AAED now offers accredited courses in Arizona that are much more affordable. I can send my staff and keep the training budget under control.”
The new strategic plan puts an emphasis on more of those courses. Professional demand drives the topics as well. This fall, the association offers courses in infrastructure as economic development tools. “This teaches cities and developers how an effective incentive can be developed for project backbones,”
“AAED is a positive, valuable organization,” says Joe Snell, president and CEO of TREO. “Our organization participates and serves in the association. It’s a very valuable tool for small economic development groups. We find AAED shares best practices and keeps us connected with trends.”
“We used to say ‘networking’,” says Casey. “But it really is collaboration. You can see it at every level. I learn a lot, not only from my mentors, but sharing ideas with other members in all sectors. You can’t help but learn when we get together.”
With the variety of members on its rolls, AAED creates opportunities to bring parties with common challenges together. “For the first time, we have rural and tribal economic developers collaborating,” Hollis explains. “Although we sit on separate committees, we’re now jointly meeting to pool resources and opportunities. Without AAED, this couldn’t happen.”
“(Small markets) don’t have the ability to draw the types of businesses that Tucson and Phoenix pull in, but AAED collaboration helps us in two ways,” says Hollis. “It gives us a
voice at the table when economic development decisions are being made and it helps leverage stronger economic development tools.”
The organization is continuing its lunch meetings and quarterly roundtables. The strategic plan stretches the collaborative sessions further into the state with meetings slated in the various regions.
“The real value in AAED is the convening of members and sharing of ideas,” concludes Snell.
Talbot says AAED wants to strengthen its advocacy role.
“AAED is the dominant force and knowledgeable source of economic development education and collaboration,” she says. “We want to be the one place the legislature looks to when it needs information about economic development. The large cross-section of members means all voices are heard when it comes to policy.”
AAED was heavily involved in the governor’s policy changes for Arizona over the past few years. It was a major participant in legislation leading to the state’s new tax and incentive policies for business.
“We were very much in the loop with the governor’s Competitive Package in 2011,” says Larson. “That [$25-million closing cost] fund is paying off today for business recruitment.”
“Economic development and quality job growth is key to what we need to do for the next five years,” says Casey, who’ll be at the organization’s helm for its first full year of plan implementation. “We’re transcending the boundaries of individual agencies’ economic development with state-level toolkits. Our plan is to ensure elected officials understand responsible economic development.”
DPR’s Michael Rauschenberger views AAED as an advocate for more responsible development.
“Their involvement with the solar energy incentive made a difference with the legislature,” he says. The Renewable Energy Tax Incentive Program has added more than 6,300 jobs and close to $2 billion in capital investment, making Arizona a leader in solar energy opportunities.
“We’ve seen 14 new companies come into the market and stay as a result of the program,” Larson says.
“Our government affairs committee is really strong,” Casey says about AAED’s role in upcoming legislative year, “We want AAED to be in a position of providing the legislature with economic development information that they trust.”
AAED’s objectives for the coming legislative year were in front of its board on the same agenda with the strategic plan. Becoming the “go-to” group for economic development puts the government affairs committee in a crucial role this fall. The group sees advancing Arizona’s competitiveness as an important legislative focus. As economic developers, the vision is not only bringing in new jobs but growing Arizona’s export markets.
“We have a lot to sell to bring business in,” says Talbot. “However, the AAED program places as much importance on supporting current businesses — large and small.”
“There are a lot of diverse opportunities in the state,” echoes Hollis. “AAED’s legislative committee is tasked with looking at impacts for all regions.”
AAED works for legislation specific to helping the state’s economy and also provides the legislature with a sounding board at how other legislative issues may affect Arizona’s attractiveness to new companies.
Building on success
Larson has half his term remaining to kick the new strategic plan into effect. Casey will be accountable for making it the fundamental theme of her term next year.
“I’ll be rolling it out in December,” says Larson. “The board and I will need to reach our full membership to demonstrate how the three pillars are going to be part of everything AAED accomplishes. Then it’s Danielle’s (Casey) turn.”
It’s an ambitious agenda for the organization over the next five years. An extensive effort went into drafting the strategic plan. Being the ‘go-to’ organization is not a slogan for AAED, it’s the plan’s objective.
“The key to AAED’s future is keeping everything in focus,” says Snell. “It’s important we don’t spread our strategies beyond the capacity of our budget and members’ energy.”
“We’ve got a great staff working with Joyce (Grossman, AAED executive director). It makes a president’s role a lot simpler,” says Casey. “I’ve got to carry the standard a long line of strong leaders have passed to me. My job is to find ways to education leadership and community and stay within the resources we bring to economic development.” The AAED member experience and resources, Casey enumerates, are very formidable.