EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of two articles reporting on attempts by community leaders to improve cooperation and coordination among economic development agencies. The second article will examine the metro Augusta area's lack of a regional, multicounty marketing agency.
Economic development groups number as few as six or as many as 35 in Richmond County, depending on which county official you ask.
Either way, the county has a major team of players ranging from industrial recruiters to tourism promoters. Georgia's lead business recruiter, though, says the team's missing a key starter - a single point of contact for state leaders passing along new business prospects.
"Augusta has a lot of really good initiatives and different perspectives and sometimes, at least from the state perspective, it can be a little bit confusing who to contact," said Craig Lesser, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
When a prospect touting new jobs calls the state department, things have to move fast, he said. There isn't time to debate which person or people should be called on.
"Having a team is a great, great initiative. It's a great resource for a potential prospect. Having leadership within the team makes it even more efficient," Mr. Lesser said.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver said creating a new position to fill that role won't happen because of budget constraints. As a solution, he has offered himself to serve as the point man.
"If Craig Lesser on the state level calls me, and he's got a prospect, I can spin the prospect to whoever they need to go with," the mayor said.
That could mean, if it's tourism-related, sending it to the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau. If it involves the downtown area - the Downtown Development Authority. If it's large industry - the Development Authority of Richmond County. And so on.
Sue Parr, the president of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, said she understands Mr. Lesser's desire to streamline operations in Augusta.
"It goes to the issue that you have to make sure we're customer-friendly," she said.
Augusta Commission member Andy Cheek said that is the kind of work the mayor should be doing.
"There are so many agencies and there just needs to be a lead dog in this," he said.
In the past, economic development groups worked in their own direction with little cooperation, he said. Now, attempts to better coordinate economic development activities appear to be gaining momentum.
Still, he said, Richmond County is still not as progressive as its neighbors.
"Everybody's growing up around us, and we seem to be stuck in neutral," he said.
In addition to Mr. Copenhaver's new role, he has formed an informal committee of economic development leaders that will share information at monthly meetings. The group consists of: Ms. Parr, of the chamber; Camille Price, the executive director of Augusta Tomorrow; Walter Sprouse, the executive director of the Development Authority of Richmond County; Barry White, the executive director of the Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau; Margaret Woodard, the executive director of Downtown Development Authority/Main Street Augusta; Lenie Roos-Gabridge, the executive director of the Georgia Medical Center Authority; and Michael Gabridge, the director of the Medical College of Georgia's Life Sciences Business Development Center.
The first meeting occurred Wednesday at the mayor's office.
"(The meetings) allow me to then go out and meet people from around the state and speak with knowledge of our economic development groups," Mr. Copenhaver said.
All members of the group view the initiative as a positive, but say they already communicate among each other regularly.
"We are always talking together, but this way the mayor can be kept in the loop," Ms. Price said.
Follow the ball
With so many entities striving for Augusta's prosperity, it's possible a potential new business could get lost in the shuffle, economic leaders say.
The mayor hopes his active role in the process could reduce some of this confusion.
"You can't stop all of it," he said, especially when the Internet is used as a point of entry into Augusta's economic development.
Local officials spoke of a recent example involving a company in the chemical industry doing research on Augusta. The business prospect was passed among five agencies over the course of a week before reaching the appropriate contact.
To an outsider, the process might appear inefficient, but Janie Peel, the county's economic development ombudsman, says it is an improvement from two years ago. Before, if a call came, it could have been lost because Augusta organizations weren't communicating as much, she said.
Mr. Copenhaver points out that although the information got to the correct place eventually, the process could be sped up with a clearer point of contact.
Mr. Copenhaver said that he does not want to interfere with the city's already successful economic development strategies.
"I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel or inject myself into something," he said. "I'm just trying to be a facilitator to make economic development run more smoothly."
Mr. Lesser said the mayor is an appropriate position to serve as a contact point.
"Mayor Copenhaver has clearly indicated that he wants to take a leadership role," Mr. Lesser said. "(Mayor) is a powerful spot."
Under the new structure, groups such as the county development authority and the chamber of commerce will still field calls from business prospects that contact them directly.
"(The mayor's) not looking to be a clearinghouse," Mr. Sprouse said. "He will disseminate information to rally the troops."
Even so, the new role is a necessary move based on the state's input, the mayor said.
"If the head of economic development tells you that, you ought to listen," Mr. Copenhaver said. "We have listened."
Reach Tony Lombardo at (706) 823-3227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meeting with the Mayor
The following economic development leaders now meet with Mayor Deke Copenhaver monthly to keep each other informed of upcoming issues and prospects.
Augusta Convention & Visitors Bureau
Focus: Promote Augusta as a tourism destination and improve tourism assets.
Executive Director: Barry White:"Even smooth-running procedures need review periodically. We're all eager and willing. If there's a way to make it better we want to make it better."
Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce
Focus: Serve the needs of local businesses and improve the area's business climate.
President: Sue Parr:"Economic development projects can sometimes have many different layers, and we can all lend ourselves to the goal."
Focus: To serve the community by planning, promoting and implementing Augusta development.
Executive Director: Camille Price:"We are being pro-active. We took what (Craig Lesser) said to heart, and we understand it's important."
Development Authority of Richmond County
Focus: Recruit manufacturing, distribution, assembly, corporate headquarters, customer service centers and major retail investments.
Executive Director: Walter Sprouse:"When the state was talking about a point person, it was someone who can disseminate information to the local development community in a timely manner."
Downtown Development Authority/Main Street Augusta
Focus: Improving business and living conditions in the central business district.
Executive Director: Margaret Woodard:"It's my perspective that we all work together really well."
Georgia Medical Center Authority
Focus: To develop the life sciences industry in Georgia.executive director: Lenie Roos-Gabridge:"In the last year, especially, there really has been an effort to bring the groups together. This is a culmination of some of those efforts."
Medical College of Georgia Life Sciences Business Development Center
Focus: To assist startup companies in the life sciences field
Executive Director: Michael Gabridge:"The business and academic communities view this as a significant, positive step toward moving economic development up on the regional agenda."