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A BIG YEAR: REDI’s new CEO says organization needs to start showing its worth

October 31, 2018

Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho’s new CEO, Dana Kirkham, doesn’t pull any punches. She acknowledges that REDI hasn’t done much in its three-year existence — and she says that if the organization doesn’t start showing its value — and soon — maybe it shouldn’t exist at all.

“I really see this next year as vital to this organization’s existence because we’re either going to come together and figure out how to make it an effective tool (or not),” Kirkham said. “Nobody likes me saying it, but I’m going to say it one more time: If we can’t effectively get to a point where this organization shows its value, then those dollars should go back to the communities and to the investors to be used in another capacity. I’m very conscious of duplication of services. I’m very conscious of wasted dollars. If we aren’t making progress and we can’t identify where the progress is and we aren’t working this into something that we need, then we need to reevaluate.”

Kirkham did say, however, that it’s a victory that the organization has gotten so many communities on the same page.

“The one win I would identify is that there is an organization in place, there is a platform in place, that’s 14 counties strong to launch initiatives,” she said. “We’ve come together in the the same room.”

But the big question for REDI now is, “What do we do with it?” Kirkham thinks she has a plan.

In the past, REDI had a lot to say about why the region should be attracting lots of businesses. Kirkham, however, wants to focus on showing — not telling — businesses why they should want to move to Eastern Idaho.

In fact, Kirkham, who became REDI’s CEO in June, doesn’t want to even talk about East Idaho’s strong suits until her organization completes what she calls an asset map, which will define what the region has, what it still needs and how it wants to market itself.

“Once you determine that,” Kirkham said, “you can take a very targeted approach and start going and courting those companies that fit into your ecosystem, fit in the gaps, fit where things are missing. It’s a win-win. It’s a win for them to come because there’s a market waiting for them, and it’s a win for us because we fill a gap that’s exposed.”

The asset map won’t determine what REDI’s area of operations, which runs from Pocatello to Idaho Falls to Rexburg, will look like in the future, but it does let REDI and potential new businesses know what resources the area currently has and where there is room for something else.

“Then we can define what we want to be and we can look at this asset map and see the gaps in it, see where there are gaps in the supply chain, and we can start a targeted approach to marketing to bring in resources that are lacking so that we can start to build this healthy, vibrant ecosystem,” Kirkham said.

In that economic ecosystem, everything companies need to operate will be right at hand, just like it is in places like Silicon Valley.

Kirkham said that although REDI has had the right idea in the past, in some ways it has been done out of order.

“I really feel like this in an organization that was initially established as a marketing resource for the region, which I think is important,” Kirkham said. “But to some extent, we’ve had the cart before the horse. We don’t really know what we’re marketing. We haven’t clearly defined who we are and consequently who we want to be.”

Kirkham said the asset map is important because it takes the emotional, feel-good elevator pitch and replaces it with a data-driven one.

“It clearly defines what our elevator pitch would be in the sense that we could say definitely that we have cheap land, we have resources, we have a ready and waiting workforce, and we’re not just saying it,” Kirkham said. “We’re saying it because we have the data to back up those things.”

As far as what goes into creating the asset map, Kirkham says it’s a long process.

“It’s a real methodology,” Kirkham said. “It’s using Department of Labor statistics and (North American Industry Classification System) codes, and once you’ve identified all of that, it’s taking the time to make phone calls to businesses and verifying the data.”

In those phone calls, REDI:

Verifies it has the business categorized correctlyAsks how many employees the business hasAsks how many people the business hires each yearAsks about the education of the company’s employees, including which degrees and certifications they haveAsks what REDI can do to help the company continue doing business in East Idaho

Kirkham said the asset map will be completed in less than a year.

“Now it’s partly just taking the time and effort to pull it all together,” she said. “There is still some data to be collected. It’s not all there. But every day as I’m working through this, more and more I find pockets of information where I’m like, ‘We needed that. Scratch that off the list, here we have it, plug it in.’”

Before she took over as CEO, Kirkham was REDI’s science, technology and research director. She was on the Ammon City Council for two terms and was the mayor of Ammon for one term, which ended in December. Before all of that, she worked for the CIA and had an internship with the State Department.

Kirkham said the biggest thing she offers REDI is that she is data driven and OK with being in the background.

“That’s where I like to spend my time is to understand information as it truly exists and then to build on those cornerstones,” Kirkham said. “I’m also very much a believer in what we can do collectively versus individually, and then at the end of the day, I’m not really interested in credit as much as I’m interested in progress. I see that REDI’s role really is as a background facilitator and to help communities be successful.”

Kirkham also believes that change is good.

“I always said that if there came a point where the job was giving me more than I was giving it that it was time to go,” Kirkham said about her time with the city of Ammon. “I’ve always believed, particularly in the political arena, that change is a good thing. … I’m not saying I’ll never step back in (to politics), but for now, it was time to do some other things.”

Going forward, Kirkham said she would like REDI to focus first on what already exists in the region before looking for outside companies.

“I would say that the focus is to protect, expand and attract, in that order,” she said. “Protect what we already have, create an environment where what we have has an opportunity to expand, and then attract what fits in our ecosystem.”

In addition, she wants people to stop looking at the independent parts of REDI — including the 14 counties and many cities — and start thinking as a region. A win for Pocatello is a win for Blackfoot and Idaho Falls and all the other communities, she said.

“The physical office is in Idaho Falls — whatever. But the region is from Pocatello to Rexburg. The physical placement makes no difference, because I’m up and down this valley,” Kirkham said. “Yesterday, I was out in the desert and then I was in Pocatello, and the day before that I was in Arco and then last week I was in Rexburg for two days. So physically where we are makes no difference at all.”

Together, she said, the communities that make up REDI are much stronger.

“It comes down to the fact that we service an entire region, and the benefit to Pocatello and Chubbuck is that they are part of this regional ecosystem that makes us 300,000 (people) strong,” Kirkham said. “Nationally, that still puts us in a rural category. So we are better together. There’s just no question about that.”

Together, Kirkham said, the communities of Eastern Idaho can attract industry, take on legislative issues at the state level and “continue to build an environment where businesses can thrive and expand.”

“We have a platform where we’re all unified, where we can speak to things that need to happen to protect the businesses that already exist in our communities,” Kirkham said. “That’s the benefit to this region. … (REDI is) one voice for this entire eastern region to be able to make things happen.”