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Business Retention and Expansion

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Which type of BRE is best-suited for your community?

Business retention and expansion programming falls into two broad categories in today’s economic development practice. First, BRE can be conducted through the local economic development organization or other entity charged with business retention and expansion as an annual or biannual interview, visitation, or surveying of existing businesses. Second, BRE can be conducted as a community-driven, volunteer dependent approach that engages a diverse set of representative community stakeholders (including economic development organization staff). N.C. Cooperative Extension suggests communities engage in the second model to better convey a sense of community-wide support to existing businesses.

Community-Driven, Volunteer-Dependent BRE

Six major milestones characterize the community-driven, volunteer dependent approach to business retention and expansion.

Milestone 1:  Organization of the Leadership Team

Regardless of whether we call it BRE or simply a roadmap to economic resilience, the 3 phases of the BRE process will involve Research, Prioritization, and Implementation. The process will be led by a regional Leadership Team comprised of four to five community representatives who are well-respected, organized, and influential leaders of the community. It is important, but not critical, that members of the Leadership Team have the ability to engage  paid staff to support them in performing the five major roles of the Leadership Team:

  • Coordinating the overall process;
  • Directing, training, and coordinating the community volunteers who will visit other businesses in the region to determine the capacity of those businesses to absorb the displaced workers, as well as identify any concerns of those businesses;
  • Developing a resource listing that includes the contacts and fact sheets of state and federal programming for workforce development and economic recovery, including university specialists skilled in BRE and economic resilience strategies;
  • Scheduling regionwide forums and retreats to engage community members in the research, prioritization and implementation stages, as well as organize the Task Force Retreat, where initial strategies are formulated for a regional action plan; and
  • Communicating the process and its milestones to the media and the public.

It is also important, but not critical, for the Leadership Team to engage a professional consultant experienced in facilitations and skilled in leadership development and entrepreneurship, as well as business retention and expansion. The consultant should live relatively close to the impacted area, if not in it, because the number of times he or she will need to meet with the Leadership Team, the Task Force, and the communities themselves, could possibly be as many as 15 visits over the next couple of years. The consultant will guide each member of the Leadership Team in the fulfillment of the duties described above, as well as assist the Task Force on the completion of its activities described below.

Milestone 2:  Organization of the Task Force

As stated above, the first major milestone of the process is the identification of the Leadership Team and their decision to adopt the BRE process. Once adopted, the Leadership Team must expand its capacity to include a Task Force. The Task Force will be comprised of individuals who play vital roles in each of their communities, including representatives of each community’s economic development organizations, chambers of commerce or civic clubs, public schools, faith leaders, utilities, and other important community leaders. The Task Force will be responsible for mobilizing community members to volunteer their time to visit targeted businesses (major employers, major industry sectors in the region, downtown businesses, etc.). They will also develop an interview guide that will be used by the volunteer visitors to uncover employer needs, as well as other concerns employers may have (local supply chains, government services, school to work programming, as examples). Finally, the Task Force will be charged with the responsibility of analyzing the results of the interviews, addressing any immediate red flags, responding to individual business concerns, and setting priorities on systemic issues.

The second milestone of the process is therefore the organization of the Task Force and orientation to its expected tasks. The Task Force members are the done folks who get things done in the BRE process – they do business visits, conduct the volunteer trainings, organize an action retreat, generate a research report, and design the priority projects, whether that be employee trainings, policy development and advocacy, or other key BRE strategies. Its members must come from a broad base (to provide a variety of viewpoints and perspectives), and be recognized by the community as influential, yet representative of the community itself. Because of the key role that the Task Force plays, the Leadership Team must establish its expectations of the Task Force members up front.

Milestone 3:  Visit Businesses and Conduct Employee Research

A third major milestone of the process is the completion of the business visits by the Task Force and volunteer visitors. Whether this engagement consists of one-on-one interviews, in-person surveys, and/or focus groups, the community needs to know what the businesses are planning or needing. Considerable time and effort must be put into both the decision as to which businesses to target as well as what to ask them. Answers to these questions will guide the Task Force in its selection of businesses to visit as well as aid the Leadership Team in the development of its Resource Listings.

Milestone 4:  Task Force Retreat and Priority Projects

A fourth milestone in this process is the Task Force Retreat where, following an analysis and research report of the business interview data, the Task Force (i) determines priority projects that address concerns identified in the research report and (ii) writes a summary report to be shared at a public forum designed to gain community participation and buy-in. It is important that community members be kept abreast of all major milestones, so constant communication with the media and community leaders is part of the process. However, even more critical is the ability for even more community members to be a part of the solution, i.e., those strategies outlined in the summary report. Giving them the volunteer opportunity to participate in the completion of small, winnable projects at the start of the implementation phase will keep the momentum going after the hard and time-consuming work of the research and prioritization phases is complete. It is also important to have “experts” at the community forum to speak on the value of the prioritized projects, but also gain public feedback as to whether the community as a whole shares the same priorities.

Milestone 5:  Work of the Project Teams

A fifth milestone in this process is the ongoing work of the Project Teams. Project Teams, which should also include community representatives beyond the Task Force and volunteer visitors, are launched at the community forum to work on the Task Force strategies that have been agreed to by the community. The Project Teams must meet regularly to determine progress towards their goals. A Task Force member should be assigned to lead each Project Team as well as be the primary point of contact with other members of the Task Force and Leadership Team. However, the Project Team members themselves should be prepared to do the work and be responsible to the community for their work. Consequently, in order to motivate community members to finish the work of the BRE process through its final stage of implementation, three things should occur:

  • Individuals who have agreed to take responsibility for implementation of BRE projects should be publicly listed;
  • BRE projects identified in the summary report and approved at the community forum should be initiated promptly after the forum; and
  • At least one full-time government or community organization staff member should be assigned to support the logistics of project implementation.

Milestone 6:  Evaluation and Distribution of Impacts and Outcomes

The sixth milestone of the BRE process  is the Evaluation and Distribution of project impacts and outcomes.

Most economic developers measure the success of a BRE process by counting the number of businesses that remain open, how many jobs they have created, and whether or not their revenue has grown. From the outset of the BRE process, the Leadership Team needs to reflect now on what success will look like. Is it stemming the tide of population loss in their communities? Is it relocating all or a certain percentage of displaced workers in other businesses located in their region? Is it supporting more entrepreneurship and opening of new businesses on their Main Streets? Is it rebuilding their towns for and with the youth who live there now?

Whatever strategies the community chooses to pursue, it needs to envision from the outset what both the short and long-term impacts of the process will be. It needs to ask:  What does the community want to get out of what is sure to be a 2-year intense period of research, reflection and planning? And when it knows those intended outcomes, it needs to market the heck out of that message.


N.C. Cooperative Extension is currently conducting the CREATE BRIDGES initiative sponsored by Walmart. This initiative will strengthen the retail, accommodation, tourism, and entertainment sectors in a select region.