NCEDC chief Elish grades himself ‘B+’

Walt Elish, the CEO of the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp., has been in his job for about a year now. With the NCEDC annual meeting scheduled for Nov. 14, the Business Report checked in with Elish to get a preview of what is likely to be announced at the event and see how things have gone since he arrived. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Question: Former Assistant Secretary for Economic Development in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce David A. Sampson once said that the “bottom line of economic development today is about building prosperity – a high and rising standard of living.” In your year on the job, what have you done to build prosperity in Larimer County?

Answer: That’s been the mission of the NCEDC since before I got here. That’s why we focus on primary employers. Our statistics will show that the kind of companies that we’re working with and attracting have well above average wages and good benefits. One of the things that we need to do is to understand our communities. What I’ve done is instructed our employees that we need to have a good understanding of who our communities are. That’s one thing I had to get up to speed on relatively quickly. I’ve made a point to really understand the nuances of each one of our communities and what makes sense for them. … We want to be a lot more aggressive. We need to be. We should be, because it’s a great place to sell. We’re going to continue to do the things we do in business retention, but we’re going to put more emphasis on business attraction.

Q: What relationships have you built with other economic development leaders, such as presidents of chambers of commerce, and how have you leveraged those relationships to generate the most mutually beneficial outcome?

A: That’s something that I think I’ve brought to this position. I think that’s one of my strengths. Economic development is a team sport. We like to think we’re going to go out and generate the leads, but we have to have the support of the community behind us. We work with Fort Collins, Loveland, Johnstown, Wellington and Estes Park, to name a few. It looks like Estes Park might become an investor in NCEDC. Estes Park’s focus has been tourism, so NCEDC may have looked at that and thought there wasn’t a fit there. But we’ve reached out to them and generated trust in us, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they’re considering investing in us.

Q: Larimer County, specifically Fort Collins, is home to economic drivers like the superclusters at CSU and the Rocky Mountain Innosphere. How have you leveraged these institutions to grow the economy here?

A: I’m on the Innosphere’s board, and we have CSU as an ex-officio member on our board. We want to get a better handle on what is truly our niche. The state has about 18 industry clusters. On our website, we have seven. All seven still may be appropriate for us. Cleantech, bioscience, water and advanced manufacturing all make sense. What we want to do in the coming year is look at those and ask, “Within these clusters, what is our unique selling proposition?” We need to be really focused on who we go after and who we target. We’re going to really look at our industry clusters and make sure they’re still relevant and who within that industry sector is someone we really should be focused on.

Q: The idea of regionalism has been tossed around many times, with many in Northern Colorado who approve of combining NCEDC and Upstate Colorado, the economic development organization for Weld County. What are your feelings on this topic? Do you think that such collaboration would be possible and/or beneficial?

A: I’m a collaborator, and I also recognize that we’re promoting Northern Colorado. We believe, and Upstate believes, and even down in Longmont, that what’s good for one is good for all. A few years before I came on board, our board and Upstate’s board looked at that and decided it didn’t make good economic sense. When I first got here, there were other issues for me to address. We wanted to bring stability to NCEDC and to grow NCEDC. Eric Berglund (at Upstate) was one of the first people I reached out to when I got here, and we’ve worked very well together. At this point, we’re working to collaborate. At this point in time, a merger is probably not in the cards, but we’re going to work to strengthen the relationship going forward.

Q: You have said previously that you hope to grow NCEDC’s budget from its current level, of around $600,000 annually, to pre-recession levels, closer to $700,000 or $800,000. How do you plan to do this?

A: Well we’re doing that every day. The first thing that I needed to do was to retain our existing base. The investors wanted to know the NCEDC is going to stay here and is going in the right direction. They wanted to get a feel for me as the new CEO. For the first few months, I was spending a lot of my time meeting with our existing investor base. Because of the recession, we lost some investors, and others scaled back their contributions. We’re going back to those investors now with a plan to say, “This is where we’re headed and to get there, we need to raise more money.” At the same time we’re going to try and generate new investors. There are a couple of ways to do that. One option is to do a fundraising campaign. Our investor relations committee at this point thinks that we can generate funds through one-on-one conversations. At some point, we may embark on a campaign when there’s more confidence in the economy.

Q: After having been on the job for a year, how would you grade yourself?

A: I think I would give myself a B-plus. I believe that I’ve been able to stabilize and now put NCEDC in a position to grow. We needed to instill confidence back in NCEDC, and I believe that we have done that. That was one of the more important things I wanted to do this year. I work for a board, and if my board didn’t believe that we’d achieved that, I’d have heard about it. Even though 88 percent of our funding comes from the private sector, the 12 percent that comes from the public sector is important. We needed to restore confidence back with Fort Collins and Loveland, and they feel good about where we’re headed. Our prospects and lead generation numbers will show we’re above last year’s numbers, and I think that’s a positive sign. As of September, we’re at 75 prospects. Last year we generated 72. What we need to do is close some of those deals. We know that internally and the board knows that. The way we want to do that is by having more control over the requests that come in.

Q: What specific plans do you have for your second year in this position?

A: The biggest goal for next year is to generate more leads and close more deals. We’re still putting numbers together to determine what’s realistic. Next year, we’ll look at the economy and what we can do realistically to add jobs. We’ll also want to increase our investor base.

Molly Armbrister covers real estate, banking and health care for the Northern Colorado Business Report. She can be reached at 970-232-3139, marmbrister@ncbr.com or twitter.com/MArmbristerNCBR
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