Coronavirus disruption has led investing companies, and the professionals that support them, to rethink their strategies. In the mid-sized metro area of Columbus, Ohio, economic developers have doubled down on efforts to help companies through the transition that is underway across many industries.

Kenny McDonald, the chief executive of One Columbus and 2020 chair of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC), reflects on lessons learned over the past year and how economic developers can work through industrial transformation.

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Q: Columbus’s labour market held up well, relative to other US metros in 2020. What explains this resilience?

A: Columbus has always moved forward because of its diversity, meaning that no single industry dominates our economy. We have a healthy manufacturing economy with Honda as our star company. It has its US manufacturing headquarters here, as well as most of its research and development (R&D). One of the largest engine plants in the world is located in our market, and then all of the correlating supply chain. 

Our biggest employer is JPMorgan Chase, and we have a cadre of insurance companies here, plus the healthcare and biopharma industries. We continue to triple down on building and diversifying our economy as we move forward. Foreign investment is a key way of doing that.

Q: What lessons have you learned through the Covid-19 crisis? 

A: The principles that we went into this with were reinforced. We have re-learned that relationships matter more than ever. We have to be very dedicated to our international partners. 

Companies need assistance and people with knowledge so that they can make fewer mistakes and hit fewer obstacles as they navigate expanding their businesses worldwide. We spend a great deal of time with the companies that operate in our market, helping them maximise workforce productivity, supply chain resilience and global competitiveness.

It is a dynamic environment right now. There was a major global economic transformation underway before the pandemic that will continue through, and after, Covid-19. Every industry we have is transforming right under our feet. 

The automotive industry is moving toward electric vehicles. The finance industry is becoming a technology industry, almost exclusively. Our healthcare industry is moving into areas like gene and cell therapeutics. We’re starting to see the benefits of recruiting major research teams here and transforming that industry, so we can be a leader in infectious diseases and therapeutics. 

With the digitisation of business and retail e-commerce industry blowing up, we are having enormous growth in the e-commerce sector too. Economic transformation is an unstoppable force that is beyond politics.

Q: Given this transformation, how has the role of economic developers changed?

A: It is really a fascinating time. As a professional service organisation, we help companies make logical decisions about where they’re going to put their people, capital and facilities. 

Never has it been more important to listen to companies and pay attention to the kind of issues that are emerging as we work through this. I believe the crisis is going to change tax systems and incentive systems globally. 

The translation of that is it will change the motivations of nation states and communities in how they transact economic development projects. As economic developers on the front line, we are that translator between government and business. Both sides are changing a lot right now. What we do has never been more important.

Q: Do you have any advice to other economic developers on how to deal with this transformation?

A: I think great advice is to stay as close as you can to your customer. From an economic developer standpoint, that is both businesses as well as your community leaders. In a time of great change, you cannot have enough input from your customers — such as what is going on in their business, now and over the horizon — and how we can bring them forward. For our communities, it is about finding the pressure points and exploring how we can use technology to leapfrog our infrastructure and talent challenges.

The other thing is to lean on one another. I was chair of the IEDC this past year. It is a great organisation, as you can convene with other economic development leaders from both similar and different communities to share best practices and advice. 

We stay extremely curious about how we will rebuild, reconstitute and re-energise our economies. We should not be doing that in a vacuum — rather we should be doing that together in a highly collaborative way.

Kenny McDonald is the chief executive of One Columbus, the economic development agency of the 11-county region around Columbus, Ohio. In 2020, Mr McDonald was the chair of the International Economic Development Council, a non-profit membership organisation serving economic developers.

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