By RDG Principal Amy Curtis
“Education is both a tool of social justice as well as a
fundamental driver of economic development.”
RDG first engaged with REDI Cincinnati in 2019 with the intent to roll out a campaign in March 2020 (the perfect time to start a campaign). After navigating the COVID-19 environment, RDG appreciated the opportunity to become part of the regional economic development story for Cincinnati and develop a true partnership.
As a Midwest member of the RDG team (just 90 minutes away in Indianapolis), I was excited to chat with Kimm Lauterbach, President and CEO of REDI Cincinnati. It is well known that the Greater Cincinnati region is growing fast and creating great opportunities for both business and talent. Much of this is due to the leadership of Kimm and her team.
How and why did you decide to get into the economic development space? Tell me a little bit about your career history and what led you to where you are now.
I’m one of those rare individuals whose entire career has been in economic development. That is becoming more common now, but back when I started (which feels like 100 years ago) there was no clear pathway into economic development. Mostly retired bankers or real estate executives found their way into this field. My undergraduate degree is in Political Science from the University of Dayton and then I earned my master’s degree from Indiana University via their School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Through my master’s program, I ended up doing my Capstone Project with the Urban Enterprise Association out of Bloomington, Indiana. That was my first exposure to economic development and the connection between business needs and the public policy realm – which I loved! Personally, I've always been motivated by mission-based work. So that’s how I fell in love with economic development. The second that I figured out that a deeper focus existed, I made it my mission in life to get my first job in economic development and continued to the role that I have today. I would caveat that with I also refuse to leave the region. I knew that I wanted to be in Cincinnati, which made it even more difficult because we all know that there are so few economic development jobs that are available in this industry. So, I'm probably a case study of tenacity in harassing other economic developers for openings that might be in their area.
Did you ever work outside of the Economic Development space?
Yes, I did a small stint in the private sector on the consulting side. It was a great experience for me as I think as economic development professionals, we always see consulting as the pinnacle of our career. I was in a smaller consulting firm in the field of state and local tax. I’m glad I did that because it gave me the opposite perspective. It also helped me understand that my true love and passion is sitting on the side of the table that I was on; advocating for the client and bringing together all the resources to benefit the client versus just negotiating a deal.
What do you see as the main challenges for economic development professionals currently (locally and nationally)?
I'm sure we all say the same thing, right? One day it's sites, the next it’s talent. I would say that talent is absolutely both a national and global issue. Sites are probably less so, but we are finding it to be more challenging when you are not blessed with both. For example, when you're looking at these mega projects that are coming through with these massive utility requirements, talent needs, etc. No one's prepared for that - even if the sites were prepared, they are not prepared for the number of requirements that are out there. Then you layer on this global labor shortage which no one has a solution for. It's going to require us to think creatively. It's a different type of challenge than what I grew up with in my professional career.
What about locally in the Cincinnati area?
There are challenges for sure. Ohio is amid a resurgence. I would say that 10 years ago we wouldn't have imagined that - but if you look across the Midwest there has been a renaissance in what we were seeing size-wise. Some of the recent big announcements of late in Ohio were with Intel and the Honda/LG EV battery facility. It’s true that we could not compete for these projects in Cincinnati because we did not have the sites. However, where we are strong in Cincinnati is in the office market. We had two office projects in 2022 that were each over 1,000 people; that was an anomaly. I think we might have been one of the only markets in the country that saw that type of office project in 2022. As a result, we know that we have a strengthened diversity in our economy, and we'll continue to compete very well on those types of projects. I would say that we are challenged as Ohio gets more and more looks for those very big industrial projects to be able to site those in the region.
What excites you most about your current role in economic development (on a larger level and locally as well):
I think on a large level, it’s an exciting time to be an economic developer. It feels like we are on the cusp of a massive industrial revolution in this country. For example, with the Intel announcement, even though the main portion will be in Columbus (95 miles north of us) we (in the regional Cincinnati area) are literally building an entirely new industry sector in the state of Ohio. We know that we will be a huge beneficiary of that. I feel the same way about the Honda/LG EV batteries. We are so strong in the automotive industry in Cincinnati and have a significant depth in that supply chain to see the changes that are coming. GE Aerospace is another example with their next iteration of the jet engine and how that might change. Is it going to be hydrogen? Is it going to be carbon? What's the fuel efficiency going to look like? These are things that we've never (at least in the history of my career) grappled with. They are entirely new industries. So, I think it's really an exciting time. It's going to test us and challenge us in ways that we haven't been prepared to lean on from history – and it gives us an opportunity to redefine our communities.
What advice would you have for those just starting out in the economic development space?
We joke within the office that we have what we call “Kimm’s Rules of the Road” that we share with incoming staff:
Always be the most prepared person in the room. Don't ever be caught off guard.
Always be on time.
Always follow up and be accessible.
Don't rely on digital technology as it makes interactions extremely impersonal.
Blaze your own path: I was a female economic developer back in the day when there were not many in this profession and now a female CEO. If I had waited for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say “It’s your time” I'd probably still be waiting.
What else would you like to share:
As a nod to RDG and our relationship, we are a fully investor-based organization. It’s an uncertain time when we look and think about the economy. Because it’s shifting so much – it’s critical to maintain those business relationships, maintain your investors, and have them really engaged in your work by helping to build the strategy so that when decisions need to be made, you're already working within an established investor base who is 100% supportive. They are already investing in your strategy.
Also, in just the five years that I have been in the CEO role, I have seen an increased focus on the partnership side with elected officials. More and more you're seeing the engagement of state- and federal-level elected officials where perhaps it was just local in the past. Therefore, it’s as important to share your message with those partners as it is to be doing the business development work on the other side. I don’t know if that was always the mindset of economic development organizations in the past – but I think it is now.