Speed Dating Meets Economic Development

May 8, 2014, Daily Astorian

Matchmakers traditionally bring two people together into a romantic relationship, but the concept also makes good sense in the business world.

Matchmaking was the goal this week as the SiteLink Forum revved up Wednesday afternoon at the Wildhorse Resort & Casino. At the conference, economic development people will woo site selectors -- the folks hired by companies to find locations for factories, call centers and other business ventures -- with factoids about their cities and regions.

The 65 attendees will meet individually with each of seven site selectors during short meetings resembling speed-dating sessions.

It was during one of these meetings at another conference in Salt Lake City that Bill Tovey, economic development director for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, talked up Pendleton to site developer Paige Webster. He had come armed with information and images to entice the site selectors.

"I had photos, statistics and information about demographics, infrastructure and utility costs -- everything to get us on their map," Tovey said. "You have maybe 10 minutes with each one, then you get feedback."

He finished by inviting Webster to northeast Oregon. The site selector's curiosity was piqued.

"He asked me and I said, 'Yeah, let's go,'" Webster said.

Webster, one of the nation's approximately 250 site selectors, visited last September during the Pendleton Round-Up to soak in the business vibe, attend the rodeo and visit the Port of Umatilla and some outlying communities.

By the end of the visit, Pendleton was squarely on Webster's map. Later, he selected Wildhorse as the location for his new company's initial site selector conference this week.

The short pitching sessions at this week's conference are scheduled between presentations by seven site selectors, who specialize in various industries. At Thursday night's banquet, James Martin was chosen to deliver the keynote speech. Martin runs a company that bottles wine into glass-shaped one-serving containers. He appeared on ABC's business-themed "Shark Tank" with a proposal to trade 30 percent of his profits for $600,000. When the show's tycoon investors balked, Martin walked away and wooed other financiers. Today, Copa di Vino is worth $25 million.

Such are the ebbs and flows of the business world, a world in which the attendees hope to navigate and master.

Wednesday as the conference got rolling, a trio of attendees stood chatting as they waited for time with a site selector, their new name tags hanging around their necks from lanyards. All hoped to pitch their regions and also learn what makes a location float to the top of a site selector's list.

Sara Means-Mizejewski, of Lane County Economic Development, itched to "get in front of a site selector and promote what we have to offer." She practiced on the local reporter.

"We have a skilled workforce, a major transportation corridor, abundant water and electricity at very reasonable rates and a great quality of life," she said.

Tina Wilson, of the Western Alliance for Economic Development, represents two rural Idaho counties.

"My area is well-suited for food processing and manufacturing," she said. "We are very ag-friendly."

Andrea Klaas, executive director of the Port of The Dalles, said she had come to pick the brains of the site selectors.

"We are in the process of getting some industrial land ready for business," Klaas said. "We're curious about growth industries, marketing strategy and what makes sense as far as industries to target."

Getting on a site selector's radar can jump-start the process, Webster said, because "60 percent of all projects for expansion or relocation are done by site selectors."

Webster said the selectors look at such factors as labor force and costs of transportation, real estate and utilities. They also look at companies already located in the area, since similar companies and their suppliers tend to congregate.

"We look at the whole region," he said. "We don't care about borders."

Tovey said the Tribes' transportation system interested Webster, since workforce could commute from as far as Walla Walla, La Grande or the Tri-Cities if there is adequate transportation.

Webster said he considers potential sites subjectively, too. During his first visit to Pendleton, for example, he found himself mesmerized by the western flavor of the community as he watched the Happy Canyon Night Show.

"It's one of the most grassroots, western, theatrical events I've experienced," he said. "I was blown away. I think you have a western experience that's real."

When paired with other factors, that authentic Old West ambiance could translate into a site selection.

Outside of the formal sessions, conference participants will combine work and play as they golf, taste wine and fish.

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or call 541-966-0810.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.