The Gateway New Economy Council is a group of volunteers in the Eastern Panhandle Region of West Virginia dedicated to serving as a catalyst to ensure the region will have the opportunity to participate fully in, and benefit from, the “New Economy” of the twenty-first century.
Lori Rhea, Executive Director, was generous enough to share these "lessons learned" from GNEC's experiences in new economy devlopment:
The Gateway New Economy Council [GNEC] started trying to craft “new economy” initiatives in the Eastern Panhandle around the same time that Richard Florida was finishing his book about the creative class. Needless to say, we’ve learned some lessons along the way that might be helpful to other WV Creative Communities.
#1 – The Process IS Important.
An African proverb says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others." So, don’t shortchange your results by failing to take the time to include everyone. We probably were not very good at being inclusive in our early days and it may have cost us some time and energy in gaining momentum.
We’ve learned that to not include all stakeholders initially can inadvertently establish them as a barrier down the road. And, don’t make their inclusion a hollow gesture, either. Once we identify all the stakeholders in one of our initiatives we look at how we can make sure that all players “have skin in the game.” If they have a human resource role AND a financial commitment, they’re more likely to have real buy-in.
#2 – Start by studying the DNA.
We initially thought of our multi-state creative community exposure problem was just an advertising issue. What we discovered along the way is that the chromosomes of our economic development DNA really ARE important. Ask yourself the question, “If lots of artists and businesses came to my community tomorrow, would we really have all the assets in place that they’d need?” If the answer is no, do what we did and break it down to the chromosome level.
Do you have a range of facilities? If you do, are your marketing them from a single source or do interested parties have to do all the legwork? Does your community appear vibrant? If each town and organization in your community maintains their own calendar of events, how many places does a visitor have to look to amass a full understanding of your quality of life? If you believe you have a talented and trained workforce, guess what, every community says that.
We decided to stop talking and start showing by creating a workforce prospect pool with a central resume source. Walk yourself through all the details of what is important and develop a shared resource site that collectively defines your profile.
#3 – The proof is in the numbers.
Does your community have a rafting company that draws tourists to the area? Do the other local businesses really understand the economic impact of the rafters to your local economy? We learned to stop guessing and start getting some hard data. A little research is an easy thing to accomplish and throws a white light on the truth. What is the economic impact of that rafting company? If you know the answer to that question, now ask the other businesses to consider, “How would you feel if those tourists dollars went away?” Show them how many dollars flow in and you’re actually showing all the best reasons why they need to support that rafting company in every possible way.
If you suspect that your historic Art Deco theater could draw more business [energizing every other business in town, too] if you had better lighting, or more parking, or whatever else is the obstacle, ask the customers. Don’t guess. Stand outside the theater with a clip board and ask every patron, “Would you come more often if you had closer parking?” You might be amazed by what you might learn.
So what is the most important lesson learned by GNEC after chipping away at things for several years now? Probably, just to be willing to take a chance. Some of what we’ve attempted has failed. Certain things we didn’t think would succeed have really soared! But working with the creative class and entrepreneurs means that you encourage them to take risks. And, in the end, perhaps the community organization has to do the same.