Kate Porsche is the economic development manager for the Corvallis-Benton County Economic Development Office, where she recently succeeded the retiring Tom Nelson. Porsche, 47, has plenty of experience in the mid-valley economic scene, including a long stretch with the city of Albany. Her counterpoint in Albany, 37-year-old Seth Sherry, has been in that position for about 18 months, but his experience includes a stint with the Oregon Cascades West Council of Governments.
With both Porsche and Sherry relative newcomers in their current positions, we thought it made sense to bring them together on a recent sunny afternoon to talk about their jobs, the state of economic development in the mid-valley and common misconceptions about what they do. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length; a somewhat longer version appears online.
Mid-Valley InBusiness: The mid-valley has seemingly dozens of organizations that are devoted to business and economic development — chambers of commerce, the Small Business Development Center at Linn-Benton Community College, the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator, Oregon RAIN — the list goes on. In this economic ecosystem, what's the role that governmental economic development managers play?
Seth Sherry: (T)here's a lot of roles that we play, but in the realm of all the other people who support aspects of economic development, Kate and I both often talk about our role as a resource hub. ... (We) shoulder the responsibility to understand what the ... different people who play in the economic development space can contribute and when it makes maybe more sense for an outfit, for a company, for a person, to be talking with one person as opposed to another ... and which resources might be most useful to them at their particular growth stage in their business. That's certainly one role that we play.
Kate Porsche: ... I've always seen our roles as being the hub in the middle of a spoked wheel, that we're here to help connect the businesses in our communities with the resources that they need. ... I think one of the exciting things that's happening right now is the collaboration that's occurring, regionally, to my way of thinking is stronger than it's ever been. ... Working together to think about these challenges regionally, I think, is beneficial to everybody.
InBusiness: This idea that the mid-valley has what amounts to a regional economy has not always been greeted with open arms. What has changed?
Sherry: There's been a renewed energy in economic development in some respects and there's been a lot of new people come into the space in the last several years, myself included. ... It seems to me that there's a strong desire from the practitioner standpoint to have a really open line of communication, to share resources and information and opportunities with one other, which I can't say didn't exist before, but it certainly exists now. ... I don't get the sense that most of the people charged with working in this space are being overly protective of their turf but recognize the reality that, if Lebanon's doing well, it's good for us, and vice versa.
Porsche: ... There are certainly differences between Benton County and Linn County and Albany and Corvallis and different parts of rural Linn County and different parts of rural Benton County. But there are a number of issues that all of the communities in the mid-Willamette Valley region face, like for example, wetlands. Rather than reinventing the wheels for each community, that's an easy example of coming together and working together to try to create a solution that's going to work for everybody. ...
Sherry: ... You mentioned rural Linn and Benton counties as well as the metro centers, Albany and Corvallis. Each one of those communities has unique things that set them apart. And so when I think about working with a company to stay, grow or expand or come to our area, their view is not bound by the municipal boundaries. It's what's going to be here for my employees, what are the other amenities that we can enjoy, what's our access look like to skilled workforces from Linn-Benton Community College and Oregon State University and all those things. We have to think about it from a work-shed and a living-shed angle, and not just municipalities or we're going to miss opportunities.
InBusiness: Are there things that Albany can teach Corvallis and Benton County about economic development and vice versa?
Porsche: It's interesting, having worked in both communities. I'm tickled and very thrilled that Corvallis voters passed the urban renewal district and supported the grass-roots effort coming out of South Corvallis. That to me is a prime example that Albany can teach, just the power of the use of urban renewal as a tool for community development, for housing, for job creation. I think Albany is a poster child for success in that realm.
Sherry: Something else that I really took note of early on is how much effort that Corvallis and the OSU community had put into supporting entrepreneurs and startups. There is room for growth there in Albany, both in terms of brick-and-mortar support, coworking spaces and things like that and a stronger presence with some of the organizations that support entrepreneurs. ... (N)early all of those organizations — the Willamette Innovators Network and the OSU Accelerator and RAIN and SBDC and the Foundry — have all been absolutely excited and willing to have more of a presence in Albany. We've already had, in the last six months, four of five events around entrepreneurs and startup support that were largely put on with our support from these Corvallis-based entities, which aren't bound to be in Corvallis necessarily, but they have been traditionally. There's an exciting opportunity there, I think.
InBusiness: Kate, from your standpoint, has the attitude toward economic development in Corvallis and Benton County changed over the years you've been working in the mid-valley?
Porsche: I think it has. ... I think my view on Corvallis is the notion that economic development is and should be a balance of the community's goals, which are slightly different than Albany's goals. Each community has values that are intrinsic and really important to them. But you can have your cake and eat it too. We can talk about job creation in Corvallis and Benton County that has a focus on sustainability, on equity. It can be both. They're not mutually exclusive. And I've wondered if maybe in the past, there were some folks who heard the words "economic development" and thought, you know, smokestacks, low-paying jobs, and it doesn't have to be that way. We're talking about taking emerging technologies and companies that come from the university or Linn-Benton and cultivating them here, growing our own, keeping local money local in our communities, which I think is something that everybody can agree with.
InBusiness: What are the most common misconceptions about your jobs?
Sherry: You just highlighted a great one, and that's the definition of economic development. That's a very nebulous term. I've joked with Kate before and others, that sometimes when I'm traveling, I just tell people that I'm an architect so I don't have to explain what economic development is. But there are very rigid definitions and very fluid definitions of what it is and depending on where people come in or what their values or interests are in things that touch economic development, that definition changes rapidly.
Porsche: And I would say one specific misconception: I think perhaps economic development of old really had a focus on recruitment. It just is not a large focus, at least of my job and the way that we work.
Sherry: Same here.
Porsche: Yes, we answer the inquiries that come in from the state, and yes, we're excited to talk to them about what Corvallis and Benton County have to offer. But really what we're focused on is supporting our existing businesses, creating those connections like we talked about for our entrepreneurs and cultivating young companies and keeping them here and healthy and growing in our community.
Sherry: I echo that 100 percent, Kate. I think we maybe have a little bit more focus on the recruitment side. But I was trained in something called a capital accounting framework, which sounds very nerdy, but it's the idea that economic development is about wealth creation. It's not about just jobs or just wages alone. ...
Porsche: I think the other — maybe not a misconception, but it's something that I talk about a lot — is that while our work is primarily focused on the economic development side ... economic development and community development are inexorably linked. Founders and owners of businesses or young entrepreneurs want to have their businesses in communities that are healthy and vital and have cool downtowns and great restaurants and arts and nature and good parks and good education. It all ties together.
InBusiness: Is there such a thing as a typical day at the office, or is one of the appeals of the job that there's no such animal?
Porsche: I think the latter, which is the beauty of it.
Sherry: Me too.
Porsche: It's development deals, it's problem-solving, it's collaboration and coordination.
Sherry: And just really great relationship-building. That's one of the things I love about it so much is getting to meet so many interesting people, seeing what makes them tick. And if we're able to help them get closer to what they want to do in their lives, that is so exciting and fulfilling.
InBusiness: In five years, what are the sorts of things that will tell you personally that you're being successful in your jobs?
Porsche: For my work in Corvallis, a big one would be seeing projects start to come to fruition that will help South Corvallis realize its vision, which is so exciting and I got to experience that in Albany. ... I think another one for me, is I'd like to see Corvallis and Benton County work on creating a stronger inventory of industrial space and that could be even some cool maker space or some flex space. ...
Sherry: That's a big one for us too, the physical space aspect of it. It's sort of a tough nut to crack, particularly when we talk about these mid- and smaller-size spaces, these 1,500- to 2,500-square-foot spaces where you're really talking about the incubation of a smaller company that may be spinning off out of OSU or even technology being developed at our National Energy Technology Lab in Albany that may be a great fit here in the valley. One of our big focuses is not only to support the startup and creation of these companies but how to have the physical space for them to grow and stay instead of following the venture capital to somewhere else. ... For my five-year goals, one thing I think is really exciting about this work is it's taking years of community input and visioning and then making that our purpose and bringing that vision to pass. ... We're here to help a community vision come into play.