CEO Corner: A five-year retrospective on my time with EDASC

Friday, September 04, 2020

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August marked my fifth anniversary as CEO of EDASC. I know, that went by fast, didn’t it? And while I certainly did not expect to be at home in Anacortes writing this during a pandemic, there is no place I would rather be in the entire country than Skagit County. Besides that, my younger son, Jeremy, just moved here, so you’re getting more Sternlichts! We are all now West Coasters!

Throughout these five years, I have enjoyed the rewards and challenges of this job while getting to know so many amazing people who make this community as wonderful and special as we know it to be. The work done in Skagit County, and the collaborative and cooperative way in which it happens, could serve as a model for any other community. This is a big part of what makes this job great.

Hitting this milestone, I am drawn to both look back at what we’ve accomplished, and look ahead to what we plan to work on. If there’s a theme for my first five years as EDASC CEO, it’s that of positive growth and change in Skagit County. I’m not just talking about business growth, expansion, and attraction. I’m talking about the fundamental ways in which EDASC approaches economic development.

We are a leader across the nation in this work.

Economic development for decades has focused on the question, “How many companies are you bringing in?” Indeed, in my past economic development leadership positions in Virginia, I have negotiated and executed multi-billion-dollar business locations and expansions.

But business attraction – with its headline-grabbing deals – has not been our focus for Skagit County. (The negative sides to going all-in on business attraction – or racing to the bottom in bidding wars -- were well-publicized during Amazon’s HQ2 site selection process in 2017.)

Instead, EDASC has for the past five years been the vanguard of change in local economic development, focusing on what is already here. We take care of existing companies while tilling the soil to create a fertile environment for new businesses that fit naturally into our area.

So while new economic blood is important too, and we are happy to have brought in some great new businesses like LAVLE and Garden Path Fermentation in recent years, our main focus has been developing a healthy business environment for those who are already here as well as those not yet here. Those business attraction successes have been a direct byproduct of our work in cultivating that environment, and depend on continued work.

For the beginning of my sixth year as EDASC CEO, let’s take a look back at six of the most impactful ways EDASC has been “tilling the soil” for the Skagit County business community. These are presented in no particular order.

Maritime Growth: Maritime is one of Skagit County’s key sectors, offering one of the most competitive locations in the Pacific Northwest for sustained and future maritime growth in every aspect of the maritime sector (e.g., industry, commerce, tourism, recreation). Moreover, jobs in this sector provide a secure family wage. EDASC has done much over the past five years to foster domestic growth and international cooperation in this sector. One of the biggest highlights from 2019 was the approval of the Anacortes Maritime Strategic Plan, a blueprint guiding growth of the sector. EDASC has also hosted multiple international delegations of maritime business leaders, kicked off the series of  Skagit County Maritime Symposia, and partnered in a regional Joint Innovation Program to win a grant to develop new clean energy fast hydrofoil ferries locally.

Agriculture Viability: When business owners and employees talk about why they enjoy working and living in Skagit County, they most often cite our scenic and peaceful landscape, including beautiful farmland. Although agriculture is not among the county’s top 10 industries economically speaking, its importance to the community and as part of our heritage should not be undervalued. For that reason, EDASC administers the county’s Valued-Added Agriculture Innovation Partnership Zone, nurturing partnerships to enhance the local agricultural industry, promoting innovative approaches combining research and technology, and producing new jobs, markets, and ways to generate revenue. This continuing effort, centered at the Port of Skagit’s Burlington campus, has brought in great new businesses to the valley that complement and strengthen the work of our producers. In addition, we are working with community partners to explore the benefits and requirements for agritourism and other ways to profit from and educate others about farming and production.

Small-Business Support: EDASC has partnered with several organizations to support Skagit County small businesses, which are the backbone of our local economy. We have long housed Skagit County’s Small-Business Development Center, providing no-cost confidential advising to hundreds of people annually. We have also run the Latino Business Retention and Expansion Program, providing one-on-one business counseling and broad-based support for Latino entrepreneurs. We have partnered with SCORE, a nonprofit helping small businesses get off the ground, and the newly established StartUp Skagit Valley, to provide training and advising at EDASC’s headquarters at no cost. We successfully piloted a state program to help small businesses Scale Up and have continued offering no-cost in-house workshops. Our small business support has only increased during COVID-19, as we have so far administered six small-business grant programs, with another one on the way, awarding about $1.4 million to over 150 businesses and nonprofit organizations!

Workforce and Human Development: Positive economic development requires a skilled workforce and strong education system beginning at birth. Fortunately, living in Skagit County, we are within 75 miles of a broad network of U.S. and Canadian four-year universities and world-leading research institutions. Not only that, locally EDASC and its partners such as Skagit Valley College, the NW Career and Technical Academy, and the Center of Excellence for Marine Manufacturing and Technology work together to proactively solve workforce shortages, often before they occur. In addition, EDASC provides strong partnership and support for early learning, Skagit STEM, apprenticeship opportunities, and child care to meet the demand of all employees and businesses.

Tourism Promotion: At long last, Skagit County has successfully established its state-authorized Tourism Promotion Area (TPA), creating and funding a new marketing effort to promote Skagit County worldwide as a travel destination. EDASC, along with the Chambers of Commerce, hoteliers, and the County, has for over a decade been involved in helping create a TPA. A boost in tourism revenues generated through the TPA will have positive impacts on Skagit County, including increasing local resources and drawing talented people to visit and work here. Fees will be collected from hotel guests beginning Jan. 1, 2021, and the County is already forming the destination marketing organization this fall.

Internal EDASC Matters: Many “invisible” efforts to strengthen EDASC have been just as significant. We are also proud of our first-ever strategic plan, clean audit, compliant procedures, and most of all our highly productive team of talented and dedicated professionals. Even when working from home, your amazing EDASC team works ever more urgently during this pandemic to serve the business community and connect you with much-needed resources and information. We initiated the “Signature Investor” levels, now numbering over 20, in 2016, and have found other new revenue sources to make EDASC financially sustainable. We have also combined EDASC and the EDASC Foundation into one single 501c3 entity, eliminating administrative duplication, offering additional grant opportunities (and PPP!), and strengthening the Leadership Skagit program, newly revitalized in partnership with Skagit Valley College.

As I often say, the people and the place make working and living in Skagit County so amazing and fulfilling.  The degree to which people work together toward common goals for the betterment of all really defines economic development. I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than right here, and I look forward to celebrating more years of progress and prosperity for all of us.

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