Towns building on spec to lure businesses

POCOMOKE CITY, Md. -- By next spring, city officials here expect to be cutting the ribbon on a brand-new downtown restaurant, nestled on the banks of the Pocomoke River. Who the tenant will be and what the menu will look like, however, remain to be seen.

Pocomoke City's municipal leaders are building a 145-seat restaurant and bar completely on spec, in hopes that an accomplished chef can be lured to town and set up business.

Because the land is municipally owned, the town effectively is the developer of the $750,000 enterprise. The project is being funded by about $100,000 in municipal money, $500,000 from the state of Maryland by way of federal community development block grants, and another $150,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to City Manager Russell Blake.

Blake said he would have preferred a private sector entrepreneur take on such a project for the town of about 4,000 people.

"Lacking that, there was still the need for a nice restaurant in the downtown area, so the city stepped in," he said. "The restaurant was the missing piece."

Municipalities nationwide are taking similar creative steps to spur their economic development amid the lingering national economic downturn, according to Christiana McFarland, an economic development expert for the National League of Cities.

Creative public-private partnerships are a growing trend, she said, the result of towns thinking strategically about just what they can do to boost hyper-local economies on a tight municipal budget.

"It is cool to see particularly smaller places doing relatively innovative things, where the city and the local elected officials really are taking a leadership role," McFarland said. "That's what we're seeing more often."

The rural town of Georgetown, Texas, decided it wanted to attract and incubate fledgling tech companies. Three years of planning by the city, the chamber of commerce and nearby Southwestern University led to the founding in 2007 of the non-profit Texas Life Science Collaboration Center.

The non-profit just recruited its ninth life sciences company, according to executive director Russ Peterman. He says the initiative so far has created about 60 jobs for the city of 47,400, about 30 miles north of Austin.

"It could have been a lot better if there hadn't been a recession," he said. "But even in spite of the recession, we've been able to make good progress. I think once the economy comes around, it'll really take off. We've laid all the foundation for a successful, long-term technology recruiting campaign."

Peterman said the center was built to serve as a seedling that ultimately will attract midsize and large biotech companies to Georgetown, as well as a well-educated, high-paid workforce — one they hope will continue to power local commerce.

"It's not a five-year project, or 10 years," he said. "The vision is, in about 20 years, that we'll have several thousand people working in this industry, all of whom are very highly compensated, and it'll have a large economic impact on the city."


•In Potosi, Wis., a public-private partnership raised $7.5 million for the restoration of a deteriorating 19th-century brewery.

The project persuaded the American Breweriana Association to build its museum inside — beating out beer meccas such as Milwaukee and St. Louis, according to Greg Larson, executive director of Potosi Brewing. The revitalized brewery opened in 2009 and has since returned more than $4.5 million to the local economy.

"It's a great sense of pride, especially the sweat equity that went into this," Larson said. "It has a major 'wow' factor."

•Chattanooga, Tenn., and surrounding Hamilton County took 1,300 acres that once housed an Army ammunition factory and marketed the site for a job creation project, according to McFarland. The city, county and state worked jointly to clean up the site. They beat out 300 other cities to lure automaker Volkswagen to build a plant, she said.

•In Bangor, Maine, a statewide tourism and business partnership called Mobilize Maine rallied support for a publicly funded $65 million waterfront conference and event center along the Penobscot River as a way to attract trade shows, conventions and athletic events.