By Jeff Finkle

A Task Force for Data Standardization.  Since 1996, the Site Selection Data Task Force has worked to develop a set of data standards to assist economic development professionals in their communication with site selections consultants and others interested in their community as a location for a new store, factory or headquarters.  The end product of the work of this Task Force is 1200 distinct data elements organized into 25 different spreadsheets.  The International Economic Development Council (IEDC), leading site selection consulting firms, and municipal and state development agencies collaborated to define the standards.

This January, the Industrial Asset Management Council gave its official endorsement to the data standards developed by the Task Force.  The support of this leading association of industrial asset management firms is crucial to nationwide adoption of these standards, which would facilitate and speed the task of economic development professionals in responding to the requests of site selection consultants. A set of generally accepted standards will also help communities make their case in a compelling and credible manner to consultants who have often done a significant amount of independent research through third-party sources and who may question the objectivity of the data they receive from communities. 

Bridging the Credibility Gap.  The idea for a task force to develop these standards came out of a panel discussion in Cincinnati, Ohio, at the national conference of the Council for Urban Economic Development that has since merged with the American Economic Development Council to form IEDC.  Leading site selection consultants, including Dennis Donovan of Wadley Donovan and Bob Ady, then with the Fantus Company, observed that much of the site information that they received from economic developers on the local, state and regional level was somewhat meaningless.  Overviews of demographic information were readily available from other sources, and communities’ marketing materials frequently excluded relevant data on the local economic climate.

Charlie Webb, Vice President of the Greater Cleveland Development Corporation, attended this panel discussion and has been involved from the outset in the effort to develop these standards.  He describes the key information these proposed standards would provide as “‘on the ground market info’ – such as a survey of the major industries and what their current wages and benefits are and information on which companies have moved in and out of the area.”  Economic development professionals had been reluctant to share much of this information with site selection consultants, particularly information on companies that had moved out of the region.  Their preference was to attempt to control the process and to present a view of the region that emphasized only its positive aspects. 

Shari Garmise, President of Garmise and Associates and an expert on data standardization, explains that this view had become outdated even before the development of the Task Force.  “Site selection consultants were doing a lot of work on research and background so control of the message was already gone.  Therefore, economic developers are much better off with the standards.”  Use of this data set will allow them to respond quickly to information requests made by site consultants who may be operating on a 30-45-day timeline rather than the traditional six months to a year.  Ron Starner, Director of Publications for Site Selection magazine, emphasizes that the standards help to “bridge the credibility gap.”  He uses the analogy of the development of standards for square footage.  It took years for the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) to promote national standards for the reporting of square footage.  This effort was ultimately successful and “greatly increased market efficiency which helped to drive up rates.”  Adoption of national standards for site selection could promote similar market efficiencies and greatly improve communication between community economic developers, site selection consultants and corporations.

Standards as Guidelines.  It is not necessary to complete all 25 spreadsheets of the data standards before they become a useful tool for economic developers.  In fact, opines George Harben, Director of Research for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development for the State of Carolina, the standards can seem “horribly user-unfriendly” and should be seen more as “guidelines.”  It is impossible to get every developer and community to agree on the exact definition of what makes up a labor force.  However, the standards are a “very interesting and valuable bibliography of the data elements that site selection consultants will most frequently request.” 

Beginning work on completing the data standards is a worthwhile activity even if a community does not have the resources to complete the entire questionnaire.  Assembling this data is an excellent training activity and familiarizes communities with the standard questions of site selection consultants as well as with the formats in which they often request this data.  IEDC and Conway Data, publishers of Site Selection magazine, have partnered to create, a website devoted to training economic developers on the use of these standards.  Information on how to start using the standards is freely available on this site and on the sites of the parent organizations.  

Towards Real National Standards.  Dennis Donovan added his site selection expertise to the work of the Task Force and is “pleased that there are national standards and would expend the time had I to do it again.”  However, he puts the focus on the work yet to be done.  “I am not satisfied by the rate of adoption among economic development agencies.”  The organizations that have developed the standards could “take a more proactive role in promoting and training.  This includes getting [organizations such as] the Corporate Real Estate Network to endorse the standards.”

Advocates of these standards are prioritizing the garnering of endorsements from major agencies, but understand that the acceptance of truly national standards will not happen overnight.  “This is a movement that is in its infancy,” says Ron Starner, “It will probably be take several years before we see widespread adoption.”  Even in the absence of national adoption of these standards, they remain an invaluable tool for communication between communities and corporations as the most extensive existing bibliography of the critical data elements for site selection.