Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, handshakes and in-person meetings have been out. That means the work of an economic development team has to evolve.
OPPD’s team took the changes in stride, and remains focused on their three areas of work: attracting businesses to the area, retaining and expanding existing business and reaching out to regional leaders. It was their approach that changed. Lunch meetings at a local café became zoom calls over coffee, and connecting virtually.
However, the personal connections stayed in place.
“We’re finding new ways to connect with contacts,” said Brook Aken, manager of Economic Development at OPPD. “We started meeting on patios for coffee to get that in-person interaction while staying safe. It has made us more appreciative of how we used to do things.”
Before COVID, the economic development team frequently traveled to various company headquarters for in-person meetings. A big part of their work involves positioning the OPPD service territory as a great place to do business, creating jobs for our customers in the process.
Now, instead of plane rides, the economic development team picks up the phone or schedules a virtual meeting over video.
“We’ve gone back to the basics,” Aken said. “And we’re having success. Those small things are so important and focusing on them gives us a chance to rethink how companies will do business moving forward.”
Aken said the people aspect is more important than ever in business, and workplace environments are shifting in all industries.
“The more we can stay on top of trends and stay in contact with companies, the better,” she said.
That shift in priorities has also made it easier for the economic development team to reach contacts. The contacts are not traveling as much as they did pre-COVID.
Aken said the team has had more contact with site selectors in the past several months than they have had in a while. The pipeline work the team does is stronger than it has been in a couple years, as well. The team is working with projects that span a wide array of business types, from data centers to warehouses.
“The Omaha area is always well-positioned in these downturn times because of our diverse industry base and companies,” Aken said. “The more we can keep in touch and attract business, the better we will be in the end.”
They also reach out to current business customers to make sure they are satisfied with their service and help them explore ways to grow.
For some on the team, the online tools have strengthened relationships.
“Being able to build a relationship during the pandemic through our new engagement platform and virtual outreach has given me the ability to work more closely and directly on business recruitment projects,” said Devin Meisinger, senior economic development coordinator at OPPD.
Another aspect of their work involves partnering with local and regional chambers of commerce to align the utility’s growth goals with those of the business community. At times, it can involve weekly meetings.
All of that work shifted to a virtual platform, Aken said.
And when the team gets a “win,” such as a newly announced project? Virtual tools help them celebrate as well.
Meisinger said a recent announcement of a new Amazon fulfillment facility was done virtually through Facebook Live and Zoom video conferencing.
One way the team has shifted its approach is through virtual tours of potential development sites. Aken said they have refocused their efforts on marketing these sites with drone footage and by using a digital platform.
“That approach makes it more engaging to have conversations,” she said. “And we stand out more than a typical email.”
The personal relationships of economic development extend to internal teams within OPPD as well. Aken and her team have worked to maintain those relationships and collaboration despite the majority of the utility’s workforce working remotely.
One way the team has helped the business community is direct them to resources available from the federal CARES Act related to the pandemic. Those programs are found on both the state level and the local level.
In some ways, the pandemic has allowed the team to refocus and re-energize them in a different way, Aken said.
While recruiting businesses is more relationship-based, much of the research is conducted online. The current environment reminded the team to push their skills forward with new and updated approaches.
“We’re positioned well going into the pandemic with strategy and other tools,” she said. “We’re taking the time to think about ways to do things differently, which is going to tee up some exciting announcements in the future.”
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