The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce wants to step up its economic development game. To do that, the chamber is raising $3 million this year and is creating partnerships to increase its odds of attracting new businesses to the area.
The chamber has raised $1.98 million so far during its fundraising campaign, which ends in 2022. Commitments have already been made from Goldenrod, Alcon, North Texas Community Foundation and The Leo Potishman Foundation, among others, according to the Fort Worth chamber.
Chris Strayer, the chamber’s executive vice president of economic development, said the chamber has previously taken a reactive approach to attracting new businesses to the city.
When a company is ready to locate its business, it goes through a site selection process. Companies and consultants then reach out directly to the Chamber of Commerce and the city with plans to expand. The chamber responds to those inquiries.
The chamber wants to take more initiative in attracting companies to Fort Worth, Strayer said.
“We want to be very proactive,” Strayer said. “And so that’s what these dollars are. How are we going to get out to the global marketplace, and really find the companies, find the industries that the community wants?”
The chamber ultimately hopes to have an $8 million budget to be in line with other chambers and economic development organizations around the country, Strayer said.
Fort Worth ranks at the bottom of funds dedicated to economic development and is at the bottom of corporate relocations compared to the rest of the metroplex. However, the city of Fort Worth ranked second next to Sherman in economic deals in 2021 based on value of deals, with $569 million.
Chamber staff will spend the money on targeted economic development proposals and traveling to conventions and trade shows to have conversations with companies, Strayer said. Some of the funds might also be spent traveling to existing company headquarters to have conversations with executives about potential investment and expansion plans.
Fort Worth’s economic development office has five target industries it wants to attract: mobility, aerospace/defense, energy, culture and innovators, according to its updated strategic plan.
A portion of the money raised will also be directed toward the city’s economic development advertisement campaign, according to Andrea Duffie, a spokesperson for the city’s economic development department.
Fort Worth Chamber CEO and President Brandom Gengelbach said the chamber’s new proactive approach will target the businesses that leaders see as a good fit with the community.
“With a reactive approach what happens is the growth comes and you look up and you think, ‘Well, I hope you like this. I hope this is what’s best for Fort Worth,’ and that may not be what we want,” he said.
Being proactive means the chamber is being more strategic, he said. To do that, officials are thinking about the types of developments that ensure a robust economy that can weather economic cycles, address innovations and represent the future of industries and jobs.
Cities with a diversified portfolio of industries do better during economic downturns, said Sriram Villupuram, an associate professor of finance and real estate at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“You have a mix of industries that all have different cycles, different economic cycles,” Villupruam said. “Meaning when one industry is doing well, the other is probably struggling because they’re at the bottom of the cycle.”
Villupruam used Detroit’s auto-heavy economy as an example of a city that depended on one economy.
Chambers do have a role in economic development, Villupuram said. As an organization, chambers help pool resources and play a role in helping to make a company feel welcome in a community when they are thinking about locating.
Villupuram has seen chambers be mostly reactive to economic development. He uses the example of Amazon’s second headquarters, which had 238 cities competing for the location — including Fort Worth.
Gengelbach said attracting targeted industries is important to maintain the city’s charm, energy and culture.
“And you can’t always do that when you’re just reacting to the growth that happens,” he said.
Gengelbach said the city’s economic development department will continue to provide a broad message on what the city offers, but that the chamber will then take a more targeted approach with specific companies and industries.
“We’ll be using the same messaging and have the same look and feel so that anyone who comes in contact with this sees one Fort Worth and is directed to our unified economic development website,” he said.
The fundraising indicates the larger shift in the role of a chamber of commerce, Strayer said. A decade ago, a chamber would be mostly responsible for business networking, events and keeping its 1,400 members connected. That’s a role the chamber still has — it has a committee that interviews companies in the area to identify barriers for success and growth and uses the interviews to adjust its strategy on supporting businesses.
But the overall responsibility of the chamber, Strayer said, has tilted to economic development.
“Our core function is economic development and attracting companies and then helping existing companies grow,” Strayer said. “That’s just the nature of where the chamber of commerce has gone.”
The chamber is responsible for responding to the company’s request for proposals, following up on them, and managing pending projects.
Strayer works directly with the city’s economic development director, Robert Sturns. He also works a lot with site consultants, people who work to narrow down locations for a company to expand or relocate based on the business’ needs.
Site consultants act as a third-party vendor to the company to get all the information boiled down so company leadership can make an informed decision. Chamber officials have a good relationship with the site consultant community, and are now turning their attention to companies so Fort Worth can be top of mind, Strayer said.
“Now it’s time for us to take the next step to get to the companies who don’t necessarily use a site consultant, or a company who is just thinking about a project, but they haven’t really put their arms around it yet,” Strayer said. “How do I get in front of those people early, so that they were already part of the conversation?”
Nathan Jenson, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, said the governor’s office will go on roadshows to attract companies to the state. A lot of states also contract with different organizations to advertise. It’s also common for big cities with larger economic development funds to do active recruitment. He’s skeptical of the strategy because it’s difficult to measure success, he said.
“So what, you’re going to go to road shows and shake hands with businesses? I mean, every other major community is already doing this,” Jenson said. “What’s the exact value added?”
The chamber will have goals and metrics, but they haven’t been solidified yet, Strayer said. They do have a memorandum of understanding with the city of Fort Worth with what the chamber’s role is in economic development.
Thinking about the large picture
The Fort Worth Chamber’s economic development efforts extend past the city and county. That’s one lesson the chamber learned from when Rivian courted Fort Worth as a leading location for its $5 billion electric car factory, Gengelbach said. It involved working with two school districts, two counties, different cities, multiple infrastructure providers and a private land owner, he said.
“Most of the projects that we deal with are going to office buildings or an industrial park … there’s not much complication around the transaction,” Gengelbach said. “(Rivian) was very complicated, and it really tested our ability to work and perform as a team to sell Fort Worth and that included selling Parker County and Aledo.”
Recently, the chamber introduced an economic development partnership program to work with other city’s economic development agencies. The chamber has partnerships with neighboring cities such as Cleburne, Euless and Grapevine, along with counties such as Parker County.
Gengelbach believes in the importance of supporting economic development in cities surrounding Fort Worth. A win in a neighboring city such as Weatherford is a win for Fort Worth, he said.
“We want to be able to help provide economic growth for all the areas on the west side, because any success that happens from an economic development standpoint is going to benefit all of us,” Gengelbach said. “While it may be easy for officials to see city or county lines, a business does not see those lines, and we all work with folks who drive in from various parts of the metroplex who spend money in various parts of the metroplex.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.
Business editor Bob Francis contributed to this report.