Spokane Journal of Business

GSI launches strategic planning process

Group formed less than three years ago finds itself in different environment today

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Greater Spokane Incorporated has launched a strategic planning process to help guide the nearly three-year-old organization through challenging economic times and what has become a shifting economic-development landscape.

"To paraphrase what (new GSI Chairman) Tom Quigley said at our annual meeting, 'We're in a changed environment in many ways. It's important to be focused on the things that have the best return on investment for our members and for the community,'" says Rich Hadley, GSI's president and CEO.

GSI was launched in early 2007, when the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Spokane Area Economic Development Council were combined as a single organization. At that time, its leaders said they hoped to create a larger organization than the sum of its two parts, by adding programs and boosting its annual budget to as much as $5 million, from $3.2 million at the time of the merger.

While early on it was successful in launching a spate of new initiatives, GSI, like most organizations, has been hurt by the recession since then, and now must operate with tighter revenues and fewer employees. Meanwhile, the poor economy has brought business recruiting to a near standstill, forcing economic-development entities such as GSI to get creative in their efforts to add and retain jobs in their communities.

Quigley, who became chairman of GSI this fall, says that while any time is a good time for an organization to be looking critically at its operations, that's even more important during a poor economy.

"It's extremely important for GSI to be reviewing our relevance to members," he says.

GSI has put together six teams of business leaders, each assigned to take on strategic planning for one of GSI's six main "lines of business," says Hadley. Those lines are economic development, public policy, work-force development, membership and finance, marketing and communications, and small business. The teams will start their work in a staggered approach, beginning with economic development, and will take about three months each to do their planning. The final team is slated to conclude its work next June, Hadley says.

After that, says Quigley, the teams' conclusions will be consolidated into a set of strategies and tactics for the organization as a whole. That process likely will occur over the summer and be completed in time to be announced to GSI's membership at its annual meeting in September, he says.

The teams will review current GSI programs, how they interact with each other and with other organizations here, and their key stakeholders in the community. Next, they will look at similar programs elsewhere that are considered the best of their kind, and compare them with GSI's programs. The teams will discuss the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of and to each program, and study the staffing needs and resources needed to run the programs. Finally, they'll develop objectives for each program and determine whether GSI should lead, follow, or monitor those objectives.

"We'll be asking a lot of questions," says Hadley. Among them will be, "Who can do something better than you? When do you lead and when do you support somebody else?"

He says GSI chose to put together teams of business leaders to do the strategic planning because it feels it needs to take greater advantage of the talents of its volunteers, and also because, "We don't have $70,000 to go do this" with a consultant.

Money is tight at GSI now. It has six fewer staffers today than it did a year ago. It cut four positions last year, and two positions open now likely won't be filled, Hadley says. It currently employs 26 people, plus two interns and one loaned executive.

That makes strategic planning even more important, Hadley says. "We need to focus because we can't do everything we used to do," he says.

Hadley says GSI has done well in retaining members, but some of its largest corporate members have had to reduce the amount of money they give to the organization due to the lagging economy. Meanwhile, contributions from state and local governments also have been cut, as governments have struggled with their own revenue challenges, he says.

Business recruiting also is a challenge right now, says Hadley, adding, "Last year, in fiscal 2009, everything dried up. There was no activity."

He says that in the down economy, GSI was able to list just two "recruitment wins"—two small companies that added a total of eight direct jobs here, during the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. In the previous fiscal year, it listed five "wins" with a combined 115 new jobs.

"There's not much mobility out there" right now when it comes to businesses moving or opening new locations, he says. "There's no capital to do that."

GSI says it had greater success in helping employers here expand, or to retain jobs that were in jeopardy.

Especially in this economic environment, Hadley argues, the lines get blurred between economic-development and other programs an organization such as GSI offers. When manufacturing jobs are saved, is that due to economic-development efforts, work-force development efforts, or public policy efforts? he asks.

Establishing a medical school here is a public-policy priority of GSI, but it also could create hundreds of jobs here, as would securing federal funding for the next big segment of the North Spokane Corridor, another public policy initiative.

Hadley says that when the EDC was combined with the chamber, staffers from both former organizations began to understand how closely the two groups are tied. Now, he says, "There's so much more integration than before."

Says Quigley, "It's especially important today that we're using all the tools that are available to us."

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