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Albany City Hall

The city of Albany last month struck a deal with Oregon RAIN, an organization that helps local startup businesses connect with resources that will help them thrive. 

The City Council gave its unanimous blessing to the one-year renewable $10,000 contract with RAIN. (RAIN is an acronym for Regional Accelerator Innovation Network.) The contract began at the start of the month.

Oregon RAIN is a nonprofit organization that works to advance the formation of high-growth innovative startup companies that generate jobs, wealth, and opportunities for the state. The organization targets entrepreneurs and startup businesses in the southern Willamette Valley and along the coast. Among other activities, it seeks to connect these startup businesses with "angel investors" who are looking for partnership opportunities. RAIN also organizes events for entrepreneurs at which they can network and build their own connections.

It's all part of the organization's goal to help build an entrepreneurial "ecosystem" that encourages the creation of new businesses and the expansion of existing businesses — an ecosystem that, in theory, can help connect those businesses with the resources they need to grow and thrive.

All of this fits in well with an overall economic development strategy for the mid-valley. Over the years, we've created this image that what economic developers do is race here and there throughout the country, hoping to persuade existing businesses to pull up stakes and set up shop here in the mid-valley. And, certainly, a lot of that still goes on: witness the hoops that various U.S. cities were forced to jump through in their efforts to land Amazon's second headquarters. 

But, almost by definition, that sort of economic development is a long shot: If you work in the economic development field, most days do not start off with a call out of the blue from Microsoft saying that the company intends to open a new campus in Linn County. 

No, it's a better bet to try to create a landscape in which you identify homegrown entrepreneurs — novices and veterans alike — and do what you can to encourage those people to launch and grow their businesses here. It's still a long shot — most new businesses fail, for a variety of reasons — but the odds are considerably better than just sitting at your desk, waiting for Tim Cook at Apple to call. The other advantage of working with homegrown businesses is that you know when a business does start to click and can offer help when it needs to expand. (A surprising number of homegrown businesses choose to pull up stakes at that point, and it's important to keep as many of them as possible here.)

The contract with RAIN is one of a number of initiatives that the city has launched to better connect mid-valley businesses to development resources: Earlier this year, councilors agreed to a three-year, $155,000 contract with Buxton Analytics, a Texas firm that researches and recommends ways in which the city can attract new business. Seth Sherry, the city of Albany's economic manager, said the firm thus far has put together an in-depth analysis on the city's demographics and the choices residents are making when they spend their money; in theory, this could be an extremely useful tool for local businesses to use.

But there's that phrase, "in theory." These initiatives all have some measure of promise, but that doesn't mean they're all going to be the best fits for Albany or Linn County. And that's why city officials and councilors need to be certain to keep an eye on these investments, to be sure they generate the desired returns. What have the city's taxpayers gotten for their money? Are local businesses finding these tools useful? Are entrepreneurs making the desired connections? Are startup businesses creating jobs in the city?

These are not unreasonable questions to ask. Councilors should make a note to ask them in a year or so. (mm)

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