By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
About 100 leaders from the region interested in some aspect of economic development received an update on the global environment in which they compete and a challenge to capitalize on our strengths at a meeting yesterday in West Knoxville.
The event was the East Tennessee Economic Development Agency’s “Annual Site Consultant Luncheon” that featured Mike Mullis of Memphis, a well-known and highly-respected consultant who founded his company – J. M. Mullis, Inc. – in the late 1970s. The firm handles about 50 projects annually on an international basis.
As you might imagine, workforce was a key topic.
“It is always number one,” Mullis said. “We are a value-added nation. People must be able to think and work.”
He noted that the nation is approaching what economists define as full-employment. This creates challenges for clients of his firm looking to relocate or add new facilities.
“Companies that are looking are asking these really hard questions about workforce availability.” Mullis said in advising local leaders that they had to be prepared to provide tangible answers.
Other major challenges that the country and, by default, regions like East Tennessee face are high costs brought on by tariffs (think automotive and Mexico), the regulatory environment (think permitting requirements, costs and timeframes), and affordable energy.
“The tariff situation is our biggest single Achilles’ heel internationally,” Mullis explained. “If we don’t do something (about it), the value-added work will go elsewhere.”
The importance of incentives is always a topic when site selectors and economic development people convene.
“The incentive side is key (only) if the location works,” Mullis said. To illustrate the importance of location, he cited an example where his firm could not find a single site in Tennessee that met the specific requirements of a firm needing 400 acres. Yes, that’s right; nowhere in the state.
Mullis came to the event after touring the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) with Jesse Smith of the S&T Partnerships Directorate.
“I was amazed,” Mullis said, adding that many of the national and international industrial firms that are collaborating with ORNL researchers are or have been clients of his firm. The tour provided another opportunity for the site selector to offer some cogent advice to those in attendance.
“The challenge you have to figure out is a way to get the companies coming here to do their R&D to build operations here,” Mullis said.
We could not help but think back to three recent events that highlighted both the opportunity and challenge – last week’s “White House Forum on Connecting Regional Innovation Ecosystems to Federal and National Labs,” the recent Brookings Institution workshop on stickiness, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s inaugural “EERE Industry Day.”
It is clearly something that should command the attention of regional leaders.