Behind the Scenes: The Crucial Role of Business Retention and Expansion in Economic Development

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker

Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) is at the heart of economic development. Economic development organizations like the Ada Jobs Foundation (AJF) connect with their local businesses and industries to discern their needs and challenges, forming a crucial aspect of their approach. Knowing what businesses need, and helping them fill those gaps, leads to more economic growth. However, understanding how to help businesses succeed in our community requires asking them directly about their needs and challenges. This underscores the crucial role of BR&E site visits in economic development.

Since 2022, Daniel Castañeda, with assistance from Jim Lawson, the Assistant Director for Business and Industry at Pontotoc Technology Center, has been conducting BR&E visits to local businesses and manufacturers. Lawson brings a wealth of knowledge, but he has also been instrumental in forging relationships between businesses and AJF. Many of these companies are very busy, making it difficult to schedule visits. However, thanks to Lawson’s excellent rapport with these businesses, Castañeda managed to arrange visits. Castañeda says, “It is because of him that we are able to walk into many of these companies.”

When Castañeda first started conducting the BR&E visits, AJF mainly focused on local export companies such as manufacturers. Due to Covid, there was a dip in employment numbers, so Castañeda primarily focused his questions on workforce needs. These businesses require a skilled workforce to thrive, making it crucial for Castañeda to learn how to assist them in obtaining what they require. After identifying the workforce needs of local companies, AJF decided to explore this area further during their 2023 BR&E visits. Since Castañeda had discovered a gap in digital skills within manufacturing, they decided to further investigate these ideas by visiting local tech employers.

For the 2023 visits, Castañeda was joined by members of the Conduit Initiative staff, Jake Cantrell and Ashia Todd. Since these visits targeted tech employers, it presented an excellent opportunity for merging traditional economic development with tech entrepreneurship. This opportunity enabled Cantrell and Todd to connect with individuals in the tech industry while also providing Castañeda with insights into the most pressing needs of these employers. Castañeda says, “Recognizing the significance of the IT sector as one of the top four industries in Ada, it was essential to understand the nuances of the tech job market and identify the specific technical competencies crucial for both present and future employment needs.” Through their surveys and conversations, Castañeda and his colleagues identified four main areas of opportunity for growth: an emphasis on networking and work-life balance, balancing technical skills with work ethic, utilizing certifications as skill validation, and the significance of soft skills. Although the Conduit Initiative is aiding in the networking aspect through their monthly tech meetups, finding ways to address the other areas of concern was necessary.

BR&E is essentially a data driven approach to economic development. Castañeda identifies gaps and devises solutions to address them. The information gathered from BR&E visits led to the discovery of a solution in the upcoming digital skilling program that AJF is piloting with the Center on Rural Innovation and Ascendium. This program serves multiple purposes. It can help local employers acquire the workforce they need while also assisting individuals in gaining the skills required to either become tech entrepreneurs or work in the new businesses developed through the Conduit Initiative.

Now that employment rates have returned to pre-COVID levels, Castañeda is directing the next round of BR&E surveys toward business growth and expansion. Castañeda says, “The Oklahoma Department of Commerce has the Global Opportunities (GO) Program which is focused on helping rural businesses expand into global markets like Asia, Europe, Mexico, and Canada. Due to Ada’s limited infrastructure and site availability, we believe that the best approach to industry growth is to concentrate on existing businesses and entrepreneurship. During my time at the OU Economic Development Institute, I learned that 70-90% of new jobs originate from existing companies.”

Economic development cannot rely on a single approach. In the past, many economic developers focused on “smokestack chasing”—essentially attempting to attract new factories and industries to a community. However, this approach is not feasible for a town like Ada due to our location, infrastructure, and resources. Nevertheless, there are still ample opportunities for economic growth. BR&E visits, combined with support for entrepreneurship, fuel Ada’s economy and fulfill the Ada Jobs Foundation’s vision for a vibrant community and a prosperous local economy.

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