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Building Business Retention by Reaching Out to Companies

Harry Price is mayor of Fairfield and can be reached at harryp00@earthlink.net.

In today’s highly competitive environment, city officials and economic development organizations recognize that an effective business retention strategy is crucial to strengthening and maintaining relationships with existing businesses in their community. Ensuring that companies thrive can dramatically impact a city’s economic future -- it affects the local employment outlook, often influences expansion plans and boosts the community’s attractiveness to potential residents and out-of-town businesses seeking to relocate.

 

One way to retain businesses is to give company owners easy access to city officials. This gives companies an "insider" view of city government and a contact person who can help with any problems or issues that may arise. An open line of communication also provides a city’s Community Development Department with a better reading of each company’s economic health and outlook.

Bridging Communications

With this in mind, in July 2005 the Fairfield City Council adopted an economic development strategy and began implementing it in January 2006 when I became mayor. The strategy contains a series of initiatives designed to acquaint city officials with the local business community and improve communication. It calls for Community Development Department staff to visit 150 businesses in the city every year. As part of those visits, City Manager Sean Quinn, community development staff and I meet with major companies either at a company’s site or at round-table breakfasts that I host.

In addition to building relationships with business leaders, the program’s goals are to:

  • Facilitate expansion opportunities for growing companies;
  • Respond to needs and problems;
  • Collect company-specific information; and
  • Resolve issues that might otherwise cause businesses to leave the city.

Another program goal is to provide businesses with critical information about city services. Since the program’s inception, officials and staff have visited nearly 300 businesses. As a result, many com panies have been able to move swiftly through department processes to meet all city requirements -- and their needs -- effectively and efficiently. For example, some visits to small businesses have re vealed financial issues that were delaying expansion plans. City staff responds to such concerns by informing business decision-makers of business loans and other programs through which the city can provide assistance, such as signage, Fire Department direction and public works expertise.

Businesses commonly raise questions such as how to obtain information on city contracts and whom to contact for specific city services. In addition, many seek details on development projects that are planned near their companies and homes.

Visits result in employers gaining aware ness that city officials support and en- courage business growth and expansion. When business leaders request help, the city’s response is to connect them with the appropriate contact person or department, and continue to follow up, sometimes with additional meetings, until the business confirms that the need has been met.

Addressing Issues

When we visited Amcor PET Packaging, which produces millions of plastic bottles, Plant Manager George Jamason said he was concerned about how the Fire Department would respond in a crisis and requested help developing an emergency response plan. Community development staff called the Fire Department, which contacted Jamason the next day. Our community development staff reviewed Amcor PET’s situation and facilitated the creation of a fire drill plan.

In a follow-up meeting, Jamason praised the city, saying, "At first we were kind of hesitant about what we say in front of the mayor and city manager, but the mayor came to help and I was very impressed with that. The Fire Department stood behind everything they said they were going to do."

With more than 5,000 businesses in Fairfield, the major challenge our program faces is that it will take years to visit every business and takes a toll on staff time. To stay on track, we visit a diverse sampling of businesses, based on employment levels and industry sector. This approach allows officials to gain a sense of the business climate and identify deficiencies in the local market or city services that stand in the way of growth.

When local manufacturers, such as Amcor PET Packaging and Anheuser-Busch Brewery, expressed concern about the lack of skilled employees, a new workforce initiative was born. Manufacturers told city officials that they were facing a problem occurring nationwide -- employees who don’t have advanced manufacturing skills pose a threat to productivity. Manufac turing processes are becoming more technologically complex, requiring employees to be proficient in "mechatronics," an integration of mechanical, electronics and computer skills.

Providing Solutions

City officials responded to what we heard by organizing a roundtable discussion that brought together educators, trainers, workforce development professionals and manufacturers to address the staffing issue. The city effort spurred the Work Force Investment Board of Solano County to pursue and ultimately receive a $135,475 grant from the California Governor’s Dis cretionary Fund to create a countywide manufacturing work-force task force. Using these funds, the task force will extend its reach throughout Solano County. The expanded program will match manufacturers with existing training programs and enable work force development professionals to upgrade the skills of current employees. It will also develop and launch new training programs and educational curricula to increase the pool of qualified manufacturing technicians.

In its first two years, Fairfield’s business outreach program has tackled individual companies’ problems and the manufacturing sector’s workforce issues. It cultivates an environment that retains and attracts businesses, and spreads the message that the city is focused on helping businesses meet their goals. The result is support for investment in the business community for the long term.