John Saltonstall, the City of Flagstaff’s Business Retention & Expansion (BR&E) Manager, heads the ECoNA BR&E Team, which help existing city businesses address issues and grow. He recently gave us a wide-ranging interview with some insights on how the BR&E team works and how they are sustaining economic vitality in our region.
John, born and raised in Massachusetts, originally came to Flagstaff in 1999 to attend Northern Arizona University’s Public Planning program. After an internship in the city’s Planning Department, he was hired as a planning technician – essentially a mapmaker for the department. Attending development conferences introduced him to the world of economic development and he is now a member of the city’s Economic Vitality Division.
Describe the City’s relationship with ECoNA and the BR&E Advisory Council?
The City is a very active member of ECoNA. The BR&E Team meets once a month and is comprised of public and private entities, including non-profits. The team works to understand economic conditions in terms of what works and what does not. Typically, we invite business leadership from all sectors to speak with us about their experience in Flagstaff as honestly as they are comfortable, revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly. As we learn of challenges, the team then develops a strategy to better understand and resolve the issue.
What sort of things are discussed at the BR&E team level?
While the meetings used to be more about partners reporting on their activities, they are now more action oriented, working meetings with a very open and collegial environment. Our last two meetings were attended by a bio-medical entrepreneur in September, and a software development team in October. In both cases, we first listen to the business and then discuss issues about the economic environment, workforce issues, assistance programs, or areas that need further exploration as a team.
Within the BR&E team there’s a group called the ARIZONA@WORK Coconino County Business Services Team. Who’s on this and what’s their role? The Business Services Team is comprised of myself, ECoNA, Christina Caldwell with Goodwill Industries of Central and Northern Arizona, Heidi Hansen with the City of Flagstaff, Carol Curtis and Cindy Wilson with Coconino County, Dr. Monica Baker and Jeff Jones with Coconino Community College, plus representatives of the state Department of Economic Security and the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce. Often issues that are revealed in our BR&E team meetings result in initiatives by the Business Services Team to help local companies and sectors.
Can you point to some “success” stories of how the BR&E team is handing issues for business retention and expansion in Flagstaff?
After the BR&E Team heard that there is a shortage of mechanics and automotive technicians in the area, we saw this as an opportunity for the Business Services Team to take the information from the BR&E Team and provide a resolution. The Business Services Team discovered there was an existing automotive technician pipeline in place but it needed help. We called for an “Auto Tech Pipeline Summit,” inviting school administrators, teachers, industry professionals, and students. Simply put, the solution brought everyone involved together, put faces with names, and shed light on the entire process from interested students to industry professionals and everyone in between.
We also have helped make substantial progress around Flagstaff’s digital sector. Roughly five years ago, we noticed the number of digital sector individuals were popping up in Flagstaff. The BR&E Team invited Deckers representative John Kalinich to speak to the team about issues related to their operations, most of which are digital sector operations. In this case, the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce took the lead and directed one of their staff to head up the development of the digital sector in Flagstaff. There is now a group known as DigitalFlagstaff which has emerged to complement the effort. The growing number of groups and digital activities in general from coding camps to meetups is a testament to the team working to create a thriving and sustaining economic environment.
How does the BR&E team make a difference in Flagstaff?
Businesses and their owners make decisions based on how a given location or community allows them to meet their needs, both business needs and personal needs. There is very little we can do to touch or change those private metrics. Our role is more about presenting opportunities and tools, brokering resources, connecting businesses to other businesses and individuals, and encouraging them to persevere. This role, when executed well, develops strong and collaborative relationships which become truly powerful. It transforms relationships from one being a problem solver to a trusted partner which is equally meaningful and productive.