By RDG Principal Amy Curtis
“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem
brings us face to face with another problem.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.
RDG first engaged with the Little Rock Regional Chamber (LRRC) in 2007 when they launched their strategic planning process, which ultimately became known as MetRock Forward. LRRC recognized the importance of creating strategic growth priorities and opportunities to help support regional economic development. Over the course of 15 years and 5 campaigns (including one wrapping up this month), RDG has appreciated the opportunity to become part of the regional economic development story for Little Rock and develop a true partnership.
As a new member of the RDG team, I had the pleasure of taking on the current MetRock Forward campaign as my first RDG Client working directly with Jay Chesshir, the CEO of LRRC. Over the past five months, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Jay, the LRRC team, and many members of the Little Rock community leadership. As the Chamber President for 18 years, Jay has gained a unique perspective on economic development, changes in the industry, the value of relationships, and the profession. Let’s get to know Jay Chesshir, President and CEO of the LRRC.
At what point in your career did you enter the Economic Development space?
I started in May of 1993 as the President of the Garland County Economic Development Organization (Arkansas). I know that sounds like a big role - but the reality is that it was just a big title. The job involved heading up a team of 2.5 for an organization that was broken. Previous to that I was in the banking business and decided to make the change because I just was not fulfilled. I have now been blessed for over 30 years to be in the economic development industry. I'm getting old right before your very eyes!
At that time, what do you feel were the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge for me moving into that position was moving into a position with an organization that was significantly hamstrung and figuring out where to start. I very quickly came to the realization that if we were going to have success, it was going to start at the existing industry level, otherwise we were not going to survive. In fact, I laughingly used to tell my folks here (at the LRRC) that I had this newfangled marketing scheme of using a fax machine to market with. Interestingly enough, nobody was doing it at the time, and it gave me an opportunity to create relationships with a number of our existing industry folks that began to respond when they got a fax that caught their eye. This allowed me the opportunity to create a relationship from the standpoint of helping as opposed to asking for something. The result was that in about three years, we completely wiped out our debt.
How has the Economic Development landscape changed over your career (nationally and locally)?
When I first started in this business, very few people thought of economic development as a profession. At the time, in most places across America, including in major cities, the economic development process was an afterthought. Fast forward 30 years and it has tilted in the complete opposite direction. Today, from both the Chamber of Commerce executive perspective and an economic development entity perspective it truly is a profession that is an asset. Not only understanding how the process works, but how companies make those decisions, and how to mitigate the risk to that company and ultimately help them in making that final decision. It’s really about the process and how you can prove (not sell) that they will have the best opportunity to be successful quickly in your community than in any other community that they're looking at. So, it changed from a job to a profession.
What do you feel are the biggest challenges now?
I think the thing that faces us today and will only become more amplified in the future is showing value to the community, value to the region, and value to the State, etc. No one entity can do it on its own. To do this you need to be a good communicator. Not only those who are in it with you but to those who in many cases are against/opposed to it. Figuring out how to create an understanding and trust with that group of people. Gone are the days when people are waiting for the phone to ring, and you could get by with the basic framework of communication. Here are the days where in some cases, you must go to those whom you may have considered an enemy/competition on a previous project to create a relationship (and trust) to make them a team member of whatever's coming up next.
What excites you most about Economic Development in your role currently?
I always go back to what excited me the first time I won a project. It was seeing the faces of people whose lives were going to change because of an opportunity that they didn’t have before. Seeing the impact that it would have on families and community members who would never know who I was. That's what really continues to motivate me in this business and that's the reason why I’m still in this work. To be honest, I really didn't expect to be in this line of work for more than two or three years when I accepted the position back in 1993, but fast forward to today - and I’m just as excited to come to work each day.
What advice would you have for those looking to enter the Economic Development space?
There are precious few places in this world where you can smile knowing that what you did each day is going to help someone, someone who will likely never know who you are. I call it feeding my soul. If that's what motivates you, then this is the work you need to be in. If you are lucky enough, you will also meet wonderful people and firms like RDG along the way. RDG has helped us create the resources to be able to do that for even more people and led us to additional successes. For that reason, I have only ever wanted to work with RDG when it comes to our campaigns. You all look at these campaigns as an opportunity to face the challenges ahead while also bringing value to the region.