“Don’t Eat Your Seed Corn”

The weeklong Farnborough International Airshow—one of the world’s largest aviation/aerospace events and trade shows—wrapped up this weekend in England. In total, some $47 billion worth of deals were signed during the event.

As you may have heard, there were no Washington state or county officials on hand during the show. While in years past Washington has sent substantial delegations and facilitated meetings and events at the show, this year’s budget constraints kept our leaders and economic development organizations at home. (I should note that Washington did have a booth organized and staffed by Washington’s trade representative for Europe.)

Not absent despite the oil spill and similarly challenging economic conditions were our competitors from the Southeast—South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida—each of which sent scaled-back delegations that included a governor, some Senators, Commerce officials, companies, and local chamber leaders. As someone who started her economic development career in the Southeast, I’d expect nothing less. There’s a rather folksy expression that’s been making its rounds in economic development circles down there since 2007 that I will repeat even at the risk of laughter: “Don’t eat your seed corn.”

Since the start of the recession, there’s been a lot of pressure to cut economic development outreach and marketing and branding efforts in jurisdictions across the country—and significant cuts have been made. But a lot of areas being stung by the recession have made the decision that now is not the time to totally retreat—that now is actually the time to be as aggressive as possible in building relationships and planting seeds that may yield jobs as the economy picks up.

In addition to outbound trade missions, strong showings at trade shows, relationship building with site selection consultants, and really targeted communications, we’re up against media onslaughts like this special feature on the growing southern aerospace industry full of direct attacks on Washington complete with a slick multi-media video introduction.

Washington has never been very outspoken in promoting itself as a business location. In fact, the lack of external economic development marketing has been totally shocking to me since my arrival here. And, it’s not just aerospace—across industries, Washington just doesn’t seem to want to sing its own praises. (For example, even before the downturn got into full swing, our state tourism promotion budget ranked 46th out of 50 states.) Maybe it’s lack of desperation. Maybe people here are just too polite to brag.

Whatever the reason, it seems to me that the state’s limited visibility at Farnborough has started a conversation about the need to consider more extensive outreach and branding for our region—one that I expect will last through the development of our next regional economic strategy.

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