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Big Things Come In Small Packages: Small Markets CAN Compete In The Big Leagues

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

RDG does a lot of work in major metros across the United States.  In fact, of the 48 metros of 1 million population or higher with a public-private partnership for economic development, RDG has managed projects in 30.  However, that’s not all we do.  With over 15,000 EDO’s in the USA, clearly the vast majority are in small and mid-size markets.  Our portfolio at any given time reflects that reality. 

One thing we have learned over the past two decades is that the ED solutions for small and mid-size markets are oftentimes different than they are for larger markets.  Driven in large part by limited resources, smaller markets are forced to be creative and efficient even when “fully funded”.  In the following article, RDG Principal Nicole Bogdan offers some perspective on innovative economic development in small town USA:

In any community, economic development plays a key role in continuing growth and improving quality of life.  Small towns and rural areas across America are fighting to retain and grow jobs, as well as the talent pool required to support continued economic growth in an increasingly competitive and global economy.  The opportunity cost of not remaining competitive is significantly higher for small town America.  That’s why best practices in economic development are key for smaller market EDO’s.

One example of a successful small market EDO is the Carolinas Gateway Partnership (CGP)-a dual county public-private partnership in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  Approximately one hour east of the Raleigh metro, this sub-region of 150,000 is a shining example of what can be accomplished with strong corporate and political leadership willing to set aside individual agendas and work for a commonly shared vision-in this case, stemming the tide of industrial decline in Eastern North Carolina, spawned years ago by the decline of the textile industry.

As CGP celebrates their 20th anniversary, they provide an interesting example of how to build a highly effective localized economic development organization. Prior to CGP’s inception, economic development for Nash and Edgecombe counties was run separately. The CSX rail line infamously runs through the center of downtown Rocky Mount, providing both a county line, and metaphorically a cultural divide. Needless to say, economic development was not a joint effort with the two county-based organizations oftentimes working at cross-purposes. To combat such futile efforts, a group of influential business and government leaders worked together to create a joint organization that would function as a public-private partnership and include the counties of Edgecombe and Nash as well as the cities of Tarboro, Rocky Mount, and Nashville.Since its inception, local government funds have been used for all operational costs, allowing the dedication of private funds strictly for incentives in efforts to retain and attract business. 20 years later, this unique structure has allowed CGP to stay relevant in a market that traditionally has struggled to compete. They have a strong history of successful business retention and attraction in a rural environment traditionally dominated by textiles and heavy manufacturing.

The CGP’s ability to use private funding exclusively for incentives is an asset in at least two ways: first, it fosters nimble decision-making when in final negotiations with prospects, and second, it aids in fundraising efforts in the sense that private investors know their investment goes directly to job creation, rather than keeping the lights on and the employees paid. They are literally investing in their community.

The Partnership has been fortunate to have a strong history of dedicated leadership with its original Chief Executive Officer leading the organization for 17 years (unusual in what is generally considered a transient career field). Alongside him the organization has consistently been supported by a series of strong Board Chairmen and board members (half of whom are publicly appointed balanced out by an equal number of business leaders) who all are highly involved and have a vested interest in the community. One could say that cooperation happens most efficiently for the dual county region in the Carolinas Gateway Partnership Board Room. Furthermore, the staff does an excellent job of leveraging relationships at the local, regional, and state levels. They have close ties to both local Chambers of Commerce as well as public officials, their regional organization (Research Triangle Regional Partnership), and the state legislature, the Department of Commerce, the Governor, and the new North Carolina Economic Development Partnership. This is critical in fostering continued success.

The Carolinas Gateway Partnership shows us that small markets can build big economies; there are creative ways to efficiently manage resources in order to overcome factors that we can’t change, such as geographic location.  Today, major corporations such as QVC, Cheesecake Factory, Cummins Engine, Honeywell, Keihin, and MBM all call Rocky Mount home. Small Towns can compete in the big leagues if they work smart and work together.

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