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Officials seek ways to tie state, local economies

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Local economic development officials will use a new data-gathering and analytical tool to get a better understanding of what is hindering local businesses and what can be done to maximize opportunities.

By late January or early February, two-person teams will begin conducting extensive surveys of 50 local businesses throughout 2013. The teams will collect information on areas including the local workforce, expansion plans and utilities to identify ways in which economic development resources can be deployed more wisely, said Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board.

Hester said while his board previously interviewed local employers, until now they have not taken a formal approach, which has made comparing data and keeping track of challenges more difficult.

The new tool, the Synchronist Business Information System, will allow better tracking of information and to identify trends.

For example, if many companies were to say they are having problems with high-speed Internet access, Hester said the board might be able to offer some solutions or intervene with utilities.

“We can definitely be a voice ... for those companies,” Hester said.

Questions about the workforce will include whether companies can find enough qualified employees, whether applicants have the right skills and whether the companies are struggling to fill any particular job openings.

Within three years, Hester hopes to survey 150 local employers to create a benchmark against which future surveys will be measured to see if the local business climate is deteriorating and, if so, why. On the flipside, the board will be able to get a better idea if certain programs to improve the local business climate are working.

What’s more, Hester said, economic development officials throughout North America are sharing their data, which will allow Columbus to compare its survey results with the rest of the Midwest. That, too, will give local officials ideas about which economic areas need to be improved to bring them in line with Midwestern or national averages.

Synchronist was developed in 1998 by Wheaton, Ill.-based Blane, Canada Ltd. by former economic development officials including Eric Canada, who used to recruit companies to Daviess County in Indiana.

Canada said in the late 1990s, he and a group of other economic development officials grew frustrated because traditional conversations they had with company officials revealed no information they did not already have.

In addition, he said, gathering the information was easy, but analyzing it proved a lot more challenging.

Traditional surveys allowed economic development officials to determine that 30 percent of their companies plan to expand in the next year, but they did not reveal how that stacked up with the rest of the Midwest or the nation.

Canada said his team developed Synchronist to manipulate, manage and organize the gathered information.

Today, more than 500 active license holders across North America share their information. The data, including more than 200 performance indicators, is shared in aggregate, meaning individual companies remain anonymous. The indicators range from workforce — quality (an executive’s assessment of the quality of workers), reliability (how many days they miss) and stability (turnover) — to infrastructure (quality of roads or telecommunication).

Canada said Synchronist will allow city officials to determine things such as the top reasons why companies are leaving, as well as the top reasons supporting expansion.

Synchronist also will allow economic development officials to identify the companies that will have the greatest economic effect during the next few years, which will allow for a smarter use of resources.

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