ENID, Okla. — Enid Regional Development Alliance is setting new goals for 2021 after helping businesses throughout the tumultuous year that was 2020.

Lisa Powell, executive director of ERDA, said the top goal for 2021 is working with the city of Enid to ensure the community is recognized as one of the easiest and most friendly places for business development.

“Businesses, whether they are retail, restaurant or industrial, have more than one place that they can locate and be successful,” Powell said. “They have more than one community that they can move to and do what it is they want to do to make money, and so many times the competition and getting those things to locate in your community is that the process is easy, quick, friendly — and obviously they’re looking for the lowest cost option — but if you can make the development process quick and friendly, that saves them an enormous amount of cost and can be more beneficial to them than a lot of other things they look for in a community.”

To do this, Powell said the first step is for ERDA to evaluate and understand what the process is like from the client’s perspective, asking questions such as, “What is ERDA currently doing? Where are the inefficiencies in that process? Are there any duplicate steps in that process? Can departments improve communication between other departments to shorten timelines?”

Mainly, she said, it’s figuring out how to make the process for new businesses as quick and efficient as possible.

She also said ERDA gets feedback from builders, developers and businesses in the community that have and currently are using the processes in place so they can inform ERDA about areas that can be improved.

“It’s very collaborative in that way because, obviously, a lot of times the client has a different experience than the person sitting on the other side of the table does, so we’re listening to them, as well.”

After understanding the process and identifying things ERDA can improve on, it’s just a matter of implementing those changes, but Powell said right now ERDA still is trying to understand the current process and see what changes can be made.

Year of switching gears

Powell said ERDA’s plan for 2020 was completely upended when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Powell and her team of three had to shift gears into a more grassroots approach.

“We spent most of our time staying educated and up-to-speed on all the funding programs that were being rolled out, and then identifying ways to relay that information in bite-sized, understandable pieces to our local businesses and helping them to access those funds. That took the form of many new ways to connect with businesses.”

ERDA’s main goal is to increase the wealth and economic prosperity of Enid, and to do that in a pandemic, it pivoted its approach to helping businesses.

Powell said ERDA held weekly Zoom calls for small businesses on various topics, including how to convert to a digital marketing platform online and how to access loans and programs.

“What we’ve spent most of the year doing is trying to stay in touch with our businesses locally, how COVID-19 impacted them and connecting them to resources to help get them through it,” Powell said.

Not everything was entirely changed, though. On Feb. 28, 2020, ERDA had a “2020 Vision” session, pulling 60 community leaders — who were ERDA business members — to discuss what their visions for Enid over the next couple of decades were and how they wanted to Enid grow or change over that time.

Powell said ERDA took those ideas and formed committees around them and began developing action items and defining steps toward those goals, including industry retention and recruitment, retail retention and recruitment, workforce education and training, downtown development and quality of life and tourism initiatives.

The committees have been working individually over the course of the year, and the next annual update session for that will be Feb. 26.

“This will be bringing all the committees back together, and read out to one another on some of the work they’re doing because much of their work overlaps with one another,” Powell said. “For instance, industry retention and recruitment also means you have to have quality of life … It’ll be a good time for these committees to share the priorities that each of them have set and where they are in that work, and that work will continue for this year and many years to come.”

Powell said 2020 would have been the year for a lot of ERDA’s plans to take off, but due to the pandemic a lot of those plans had to be put on hold or restarted completely.

She said areas such as health care, education, retail, restaurants and real estate won’t be delivered the same way due to COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has changed everything. Nothing will ever be done the same way,” Powell said. “What our plans were a year ago for how to support business growth, they don’t overlay with what’s going to happen in the future for business growth … A lot of our time this year is going to be trying to understand how things have changed and what things are going to go back to the way they were and what things aren’t.”

How ERDA helps bring business

Some of the things ERDA does to help bring new businesses to town is meeting with new businesses to get a better understanding of what they do and what they need to be successful, whether it’s a location on the truck route or a 10,000-square-foot building.

Depending on the industry, some businesses might have to fill out applications, and ERDA can help facilitate those introductions and applications.

ERDA helps not only businesses but also entrepreneurs.

“This extends from your single entrepreneur who has a — what we like to say — has a harebrained idea and is trying to figure out how to make it happen,” Powell said, “to a company that employs 500 workers that makes $70,000 a year.”

Most of the companies in Enid were founded by entrepreneurs, including Tyson, Northcutt, Jumbo Foods and Security National Bank, Powell said.

ERDA helps connect businesses with necessary resources and provides them with information. One of the things most businesses are not aware of is that there are federal, state and local resources that are paid for with tax dollars that are free to them to help their business.

“Whether that’s an entrepreneur who needs to know how to write a marketing plan or put financial statements together or pro forma or business plan, there are staff here in this incubator, by Autry Technology Center, that will hold their hand through that process, and it doesn’t cost them anything,” Powell said.

The grant process

ERDA currently has “unique” grants available, Powell said. ERDA is using CARES Act money to address economic issues because of the pandemic, and ERDA has allocated $400,000 of that funding to assist small businesses that saw a drop in revenue during the 2019-20 year.

ERDA took applications through Jan. 29 for small businesses with up to 25 employees and applications through Feb. 12 for single entrepreneurs so they could request up to $15,000 in funding to cover fixed costs or apply for money to help cover losses seen in revenue last year.

Other grants ERDA has available include a micro-enterprise grant that’s available annually, an ongoing sprinkler grant program for downtown, a Grow Enid loan program and a Start With Enid program that’s available for new businesses.

One of the things ERDA currently has ongoing is an $800,000 grant the Economic Development Administration awarded to the Garfield County Industrial Park.

Ceilings for growth

Powell said in Enid, like in most places in the United States over the past 10 years, there’s a skills gap between what people are skilled at and what the labor force is demanding, and there’s not enough people to fill the jobs that exist.

One way to combat this is to get education and industry groups to communicate so that people are trained to fill those existing jobs.

Enid has not just one hospital but two: St. Mary’s Regional Health Center and Integris Bass Baptist Health Center. That strong health care system is one quality of life component employers look for in a community, Powell said.

“(Enid is) a medical hub for Northwest Oklahoma and southern Kansas, and that brings a lot of people into town,” Powell said. “Health care is our largest employment sector, not just because of our hospitals but because of all of our specialty care, nursing centers, and so that’s a key sector of the community that we work with ongoing to ensure that they are happy, healthy and growing.”

Another key sector employers look for in communities is education. Powell said Enid has invested a lot of money in Enid and area schools to upgrade facilities and technology, which gives Enid a leg up on competition.

Powell said Enid is at a unique place in the country — being located on the plains and along two railroad lines; boasting strong, renewable energy companies, natural gas pipelines, grains and other agricultural products grown in the region; and having a strong highway infrastructure, to name a few.

“All of those things make us naturally attractive for businesses to locate here,” she said. “I expect we will continue to grow in the areas that we’re strong in, but I also expect that we will continue to diversify a little bit as things change … We’re positioned for growth.”

Overall, Powell said ERDA helps connect the businesses with the city of Enid, and she hopes to help make Enid a supportive and encouraging area for business growth so new businesses have an easier time locating to the area and growing in the community.

“We are really more in the role of removing barriers for business growth here in the community, because those businesses are the ones that create those jobs,” she said. “As long as we are doing that, businesses should continue to thrive here.”

Article by: Kelci McKendrick – Enid News & Eagle 2.14.21