uoting Site Selection colleagues isn’t a reportorial practice we typically employ. But in this instance, a thought-provoking presentation by Editor-in-Chief Mark Arend served as the prompt for an inquiry into attracting top talent through “quality of life” enhancements. QOL has rocketed up the priority list of economic developers.
Hub RTP was conceived with talent attraction in mind.
Source: Hub RTP
“In many cases today,” Mark observed in mid-May at the City Nation Place conference hosted out of Pittsburgh, “quality of life rivals traditional location priorities. QOL attributes are increasingly important to talent, and finding the right talent is more important to companies today than ever before.”
Ever-evolving notions of what defines QOL are currently being driven by the inclinations of millennials and members of Gen Z, the two workforce cohorts most coveted by employers. These two generations are said to diverge from previous generations in their embrace of tolerance, inclusivity and diversity — however much members of those previous generations (think Woodstock, Stonewall and the Selma-to-Montgomery march) valued those same qualities. Today, those parameters increasingly constitute not mere preferences but demands, something Mark alluded to in his talk to brand marketing leaders and economic development professionals.
“What’s changed in the two-and-a-half decades I’ve been covering site selection,” he said, “is the growing importance of what is important to employees.”
Employers have gotten the message. The new notions of QOL thus are playing an increasing role in location decisions.
“I’m not making this up,” says Ryan Regan, vice president of economic development at Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce in Durham, North Carolina, “but we hosted a site visit yesterday with a tech and professional services company, and a significant portion of what we discussed was diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It’s important to them, and it’s an asset of ours. We think,” Regan tells Site Selection, “that it’s a competitive advantage.”
Social issues have captured the imaginations of younger workers.
Photo: Getty Images
It Takes Teamwork
What Regan likes to call a “holistic” approach to progressive placemaking requires buy-in across multiple constituencies and even jurisdictions. He cites a regional collaboration among the Durham Chamber and those from nearby Raleigh and Chapel Hill called the Triangle DEI Alliance, a “chamber within a chamber,” he calls it, that promotes diversity. Support also comes from the region’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities and, crucially, Regan believes, from the economic engine that is Research Triangle Park. RTP employs some 55,000 tech and life sciences workers, who tend, says Regan, to be enthusiastic about inclusivity. RTP’s leadership, he believes, “is very focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Founded in 2019, the RTP DEI Collective has grown to include more than 30 companies that share similar social goals. The Collective recently entered into a partnership with the Raleigh-based Diversity Movement, which aims to deliver “real-world business outcomes through diversity, equity and inclusion” to more than 100 companies and organizations.
“When companies land here,” Regan says, “often they want to find avenues to engage these values they believe in. The RTP DEI Collective is built around the umbrella of, ‘How do we go about promoting those values?’ ”
RTP also has broken ground on the $1.5 billion, 44-acre “Hub RTP,” envisioned as a centrally located mix of office, residential, retail and hotel, with a dozen acres of green space. The project, says Research Triangle President Scott Levitan, is designed “to meet the expectations of employers and the talent they recruit to North Carolina.”
Hub RTP, Regan hopes, will serve as a part of a broad-based response to employees who, post-pandemic, may be resistant to returning to the office.
— Ryan Regan, VP Economic Development, Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce
“Employees,” he says, “are requiring a highly amenitized office environment. And in a subtext to that, promoting and valuing diversity, equity and inclusion is another important way to attract employees back to the office and get them committed to your company.”
Not All Concerns are New Ones
Just as social pressures can arise through unforeseen events such as the killing of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic, the unpredictable realm of politics is asserting increasing sway over certain types of strategic corporate decision-making. How might a post-Roe world — with some states eager to ban abortion — impact site selection? Might diverging gun-safety strategies among the states, — as well as policies governing LGBTQ rights, immigration and climate change — accelerate “the great sorting” of Americans by political ties? What about rising crime, a factor that fundamentally impacts QOL?
“No matter your preference,” says John Boyd, Jr., principal of Boyd Group, a New Jersey-based site consultancy, “everyone is on the same page when it comes to the issues of crime and the collapse of civil behavior that we’re seeing in many cities.”
Clients, Boyd tells Site Selection, are increasingly attuned not merely to crime statistics but to the ways in which localities deal with lawlessness.
“The new players in site selection,” he says, “are district attorneys.”
Similarly, what some might label as “virtue signaling” is no guarantor of winning projects. Witness the fresh decision of manufacturing giant Caterpillar to bolt Democrat-led Illinois for deep-red Texas, a bastion of hard-core conservatism. Still, Regan detects a fundamental shift in social priorities from such perennial concerns as crime and public schools toward a preference for “social offerings,” such as communal gathering spots, and “openness,” which he defines as how welcoming a community is toward different types of people.
“If you don’t even feel like you belong in your community,” he says, “if you don’t really feel like you’re attached, then some of the other things become slightly less relevant.”
A Turnabout in Maine
On June 1, the coastal enclave of Biddeford, Maine, raised a rainbow flag up the pole at City Hall in recognition of Pride Month. A modest-sized city of 21,000 residents, the former mill town just north of Kennebunkport is engaged in a long-term mission to re-invent itself, as evidenced by Heart of Biddeford, a civic renewal group, having received a 2022 Great American Main Street Award from Main Street America.
“Biddeford proves that equity and inclusion are the future of the Main Street movement,” said Main Street America President and CEO Patrice Frey. “Their work with Black-owned businesses, formerly incarcerated people, English Language Learners and other groups has enriched the culture of the district and brought lasting economic change.”
And how. Efforts led by Heart of Biddeford have resulted in more than $200 million in public and private investment and supported the creation of 167 new businesses, high-end clothiers, boutiques, restaurants and cafes among them. Biddeford’s downtown district boasts a 4.5% commercial vacancy rate, a far cry from 21% in 2006.
“We have 56 food-related businesses and 25 retail business, and that’s just on Main Street,” says Delilah Popoure, Heart of Biddeford’s executive director.
Gone are the incinerator, the downtown head shops, tattoo parlors and hair salons. The renovated Pepperell Mill, a former West Point Stevens textile facility, has been converted to house several hundred attractive, loft-style apartments. A boutique hotel that’s to open in September boasts of its location in Biddeford’s “surging restaurant and culture scene.” As a transformative central gathering spot, a combined coffee shop, bookstore and taproom called Elements recently marked its 10th anniversary.
“We are in communication with our major industrial employers,” says Poupore. “We know they can’t attract people to work here if it’s not a good place to live.”
But the change has come to Biddeford, and the wheel’s still in spin.
“Ten years ago on Facebook,” Popoure recalls, “if you were from here, you’d say you were from Portland, even though it’s 20 miles away. Now,” she says, “people are very proud to say they are from Biddeford.”
Gary Daughters is a Peabody Award winning journalist who began with Site Selection in 2016. Gary has worked as a writer and producer for CNN covering US politics and international affairs. His work has included lengthy stints in Washington, DC and western Europe. Gary is a 1981 graduate of the University of Georgia, where he majored in Journalism and Mass Communications. He lives in Atlanta with his teenage daughter, and in his spare time plays guitar, teaches golf and mentors young people.