Rob Hooper made a virtue out of necessity — grinding, no-alternatives necessity — when he took the reins of Northern Nevada Development Authority in 2009.
Today, the virtue has become even more virtuous, setting a model for other economic development agencies that seek to create new jobs in communities in Nevada and elsewhere in the nation.
And while NNDA continues to fine-tune its approach, the philosophy dubbed “Open Source Economic Development” is generating new jobs for the five-county region served by the agency. At last count, some 225 companies — some serious, others just looking — had their sights on possible locations in Churchill, Douglas, Storey and Lyon counties and Carson City.
Hooper, the executive director of Carson City-based NNDA, found a nonprofit that had been brought to its knees by the recession and flagging community support when he took the job in 2009. Membership was falling fast, the agency operated with a skeleton staff and skepticism about the potential of NNDA was widespread.
He couldn’t turn to the traditional model of economic development in which big developers, builders, banks and the like pony up hefty annual dues to support a team of professionals to work with new and existing employers.
Instead, the Open Source plan has relied for nearly five years on teams of volunteers who handle tasks ranging from the search for industrial real estate to educational support for new and expanding employers.
“Once you get a whole bunch of smart people volunteering their time, great things happen,” says Hooper. “It works for our region.”
An important change was a subtle shift in focus for volunteers. It’s not uncommon, Hooper says, for volunteers at economic-development agencies to look out for their own interests, hoping to get first crack at selling their own companies’ services to firms that are new in town.
“We changed that philosophy to this: What’s in it for their kids? Their grandchildren? Our community? We have come together with a system of collaboration and sharing,” says the NNDA executive.
But the Open Source framework hasn’t remained unchanged.
Once totaling as many as 14 committees, the organization now relies on 10. Some committees found that they didn’t have enough work; others finished the tasks in front of them and wrapped up their business.
“The base concept is the same,” says Hooper. “But we are better at doing it.”
The organization is getting better, too, at measuring its successes.
Once satisfied to simply count the number of new jobs in the region, the NNDA team today believes that a better measurement is the growth in median household income.
That metric not only measures the number of jobs but also reflects the region’s progress in developing good-paying employment.
The chairs of the committees comprise the board of directors of NNDA, ensuring that the board’s strategic vision aligns closely with the on-the-ground work of the committees.
With nearly five years of Open Source experience, NNDA now faces a couple of challenges.
The first generation of volunteers, the ones who bought into the vision when economic times were dark, now are being succeeded by the second generation.
Because committees identify and select newcomers for themselves, that transition appears to be going smoothly, Hooper says.
That, he says, is a strong indication that NNDA is able to move forward on its own momentum and no longer relies on a small cadre of folks to provide its energy.
The Open Source model now is providing a framework for similar economic development efforts in the Elko area, and development professionals around the nation have taken a look at the process developed out of necessity in Carson City.
While the Open Source concept was developed at a time when volunteer help was about all that NNDA could afford, the agency today has built a structure of paid professionals to support the largely volunteer effort.
NNDA today has a staff of nine. State economic-development funds provide about 25 percent of NNDA’s annual budget of $800,000. County support pays another 25 percent. And the remainder comes from companies that invest in NNDA as well as the proceeds from NNDA-sponsored events and the fees it generates from management of economic development grants.
Danny Campos, vice president of business development for NNDA, says the staff and volunteers deal with increasingly complex issues such as digital infrastructure and creation of a technology-savvy workforce as the region’s economy continues to diversify.
Adds Hooper, “We’re finding that everything is connected to everything else.”