AEDC strategic plan includes marketing to increase awareness

ATHENS, TX: The second goal of AEDC’s comprehensive strategic plan, developed in conjunction with TIP Strategies, is marketing and attraction, to increase awareness of economic development opportunities in Athens.

A successful economic development marketing program raises awareness of the community, among target audiences and distinguishes the community from its competitors.

Based on an analysis of existing employers and assets in the Athens labor shed, matched with the industries that are expected to experience state and regional growth, and the occupations and skillsets of the labor shed workforce, TIP identified Athens’ target market industries as healthcare, metal fabrication, logistics and distribution, and manufacturing to include medical devices and supplies. It was recommended that AEDC recruit, develop and expand investment and employment in these target industries.

In 2017, Development Counsellors International (DCI) surveyed executives on factors related to best practices in attracting corporate investment. The findings showed that having an internet/website presence (74 percent) is rated as the most effective marketing technique, followed by planned visits to corporate executives (66 percent).

In addition, the results showed incentive information (57 percent), demographic information (48 percent), and a searchable database of available buildings and sites (44 percent) rank as the most useful features of an economic development website.

AEDC launched its newly redesigned website, in 2016. The professionally designed website features key information for prospective companies and site selectors, including demographics, incentives, a searchable database of available buildings and sites, in addition to Athens Industrial Park, talent, a list of major employers, quality of life, news, staff contact information, plus videos highlighting Athens and company testimonials. 

TIP’s recommendation was for AEDC to continue to leverage existing marketing alliances, allocate additional time and resources at targeting site selectors and commercial real estate brokers in the DFW metroplex, and procure additional marketing tools and databases to assist in making its program more efficient and focused.

Today, AEDC continues to recruit and encourage new industrial development in Athens by building awareness of Athens among decision-makers in target sectors and corporate site selectors, along with participating in regional, statewide and national economic development marketing initiatives.

To do this, AEDC participates with the following marketing organizations to reach Athens’ target market sectors.

The Northeast Texas Economic Alliance (NETEA) is comprised of four regional communities that provide site location assistance in Northeast Texas.

By partnering with NETEA, AEDC leverages its marketing dollars by participating in recruitment mission trips that result in face-to-face meetings with decision-makers in target industries. NETEA conducts three to four recruitment trips each year to a targeted geographical region of the United States. Typically, 12 to 15 meetings are conducted with pre-qualified companies, over a four-day period.

In addition to hosting several site visits with prospective companies, these recruitment trips have resulted in project wins for Athens, successfully attracting manufacturing companies, bringing primary jobs and investments to the community.

A 2017 DCI Winning Strategies survey shows that 54 percent of companies are planning to outsource their site selection activities, up from 40 percent in 2014.

AEDC is a member of the East Texas I-20 Corridor Alliance, whose purpose is to market the region to site consultants and industrial brokers in the Dallas area. The I-20 Corridor hosts two to three events throughout the year, as a way to network and build relationships with these key players.

According to Site Selection Group, one of the things communities do well in site selection is formal and informal partnerships. Continued formal integration of regional markets with groups such as NETEA and the I-20 Corridor, is a strategy employed by AEDC to meet this goal. Regionalism is especially important for small communities at the outskirts of major markets.

Involvement from utility companies is a source of project leads, and partnership opportunities exist for communities when it comes to trade shows, as shown below.

In addition to the key partnerships already mentioned, AEDC is a member of the Dallas Regional Chamber. It is through this connection that AEDC receives project leads and has the opportunity to attend networking events with site selectors.

AEDC partners with Team Texas, the state’s economic development marketing association, and Oncor to attend trade shows in key target sectors and markets, along with opportunities for company visits and meetings with site consultants.

Attending industry specific trade shows is a great way to keep up to date on the latest industry trends, plus networking with a high number of investors by walking the floor and setting appointments, which can result in typically 20 to 50 investor conversations, according to WAVTEQ.

These face-to-face meetings and business interactions generate the greatest number of new leads for AEDC.

With a goal of five project successes, an organization must start with 650 prospect leads, leading to 125 qualified prospects, leading to 25 active projects, according to WAVTEQ.

TIP stated that to be more competitive for new business investment, Athens must position itself and differentiate itself not only from the other communities in the DFW metroplex and East Texas, but the thousands of communities both in the United States and abroad that compete for business locations and expansions.

This requires an active, consistent and focused marketing program that clearly articulates Athens’ value proposition as a destination for private investment.

In WAVTEQ’s experience, it often takes three years before a company is operational in their new location. The average length of time from when the first contact with a lead is made to selecting a location is 24 months. It takes an additional 12 months, on average, until a project is operational.

Another task under Goal 2 is to highlight local business success stories.

TIP presents that one of the most important targets of any marketing effort should be the people and businesses already in Athens, since they already have an existing investment in the community and represent Athens on a daily basis.

Making sure that existing residents and local business leaders have a positive image of their city is critical to the success of any external campaign, as these are the people who can best tell the Athens story to the outside world.

In 2013, AEDC received the International Economic Development Corporation Gold Award for its internal marketing campaign.

AEDC continues to highlight positive stories about local businesses to the media, in addition to creating testimonial videos, which can be found on AEDC’s website and social media channels. These success stories also tout AEDC’s awards and recognition for economic excellence, workforce excellence and its business retention and expansion efforts.

Lastly, TIP recommended that AEDC should support efforts to improve the appearance and quality of development along the city’s main gateways and arterial roads. It was noted that improvements along State Highway 31 and U.S. Highway 175, coming into Athens from the west, are especially needed.

These highways serve as the primary gateways into the city from the state’s major population centers and provide a first impression of Athens to visitors and travelers. AEDC can most effectively support enhancement efforts by promoting high quality development of specific sites and buildings.

To address this issue, in 2014, the AEDC board implemented the Business Assistance Grant program.

Since the program’s inception, AEDC has awarded more than $130,000 in matching grant funds to eligible businesses located along Athens’ main thoroughfares. To date, eligible businesses have invested $910,745 in capital investments.

This year, AEDC board of directors approved to extend the beautification area to the loop for the western, northern and southern corridors of Athens, including an extension on South Prairieville Street to Park Street. This allows for properties located along the designated beautification area to apply for the grant. The program is designed to encourage exterior improvements to distressed properties located along these high traffic roadways leading into Athens, while enhancing the economic vitality of the city of Athens.

Grants from 50 to 80 percent can apply to projects that are visible from the public right of way, and may include improvements to the building’s façade, property, such as landscaping, lighting, sidewalk, parking lot improvements and demolition. Maximum funding ranges from $5,000 up to $12,500, depending on the type of grant identified in the guidelines.

AEDC announces a call for applications at the beginning of its fiscal year, which starts October 1, for businesses to be considered for funding.

These are a few examples of how AEDC is increasing the awareness of economic development opportunities among its target market sectors.

It’s critical that AEDC continue to build relationships with site consultants, and engage in company visits, to help attract additional jobs and investments to the city of Athens.