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Published: Sunday, 11/21/2004

A good Web can catch jobs

Such hand-wringing this week by our economic development folk, after a think tank put Toledo behind Youngstown - meaning, of course, that wherever we're headed, it likely involves travel by hand basket. Cripes, even Gary, Ind., fared better than Toledo in the Milken Institute's 200-city economic rating.

It all brought to mind a recent article in Governing magazine, including one statistic that stopped me in my tracks. Writer Ellen Perlman said that when businesses look to expand or relocate, "80 percent of the preliminary site selection now happens on the Web. Those places not in the game may be bypassed without ever realizing it."

Economic development, in other words, is now an online, live-or-die proposition.

The magazine said jurisdictions' Web sites must quickly and thoroughly answer such basic questions as what buildings or sites are available, and what are the area's demographics, including work force and spending data.

And the best way to present this, Ms. Perlman wrote, is with "data-rich" Web sites using geographic information systems to map results. She quoted consultant Anatalio Ubalde: "If I gave you a database and you looked at it until your eyes were bleary, you would never understand it the way you would spatially."

So I called California-based GIS Planning yesterday and asked Mr. Ubalde to look over our Web sites - the port authority, Regional Growth Partnership, and the city and county - and assess this area's online economic development efforts.

(I bet this usually costs plenty; so you can thank me later for the freebie.)

Overall, he said our sites are "a combination of some good content, some decent data, and unavailable information. If I were to rate [them] I couldn't give them a grade of A or F; I would give them the grade of Incomplete."

One bright spot? The city and RGP offer "a functioning sites-and-buildings database so that businesses looking for vacant land or an available commercial building can view what is available."

But buildings are only part of what motivates business. "Toledo has great geographic advantages," said Mr. Ubalde, which GIS mapping "would really help articulate."

Pointing to the county Web site, Mr. Ubalde praised its "very good infrastructure of GIS data," which he suggests Toledo and the RGP "would do well to leverage." Since the county has already done "much of the groundwork for an effective economic development Web site," the right tweaking could have us "running a mile race with a half-mile head start."

Recently, Dell Computers chose Oklahoma City over 122 others for a new call center. Dell's big concern? Workers. Now listen to this Oklahoma development official explain how GIS helped seal the deal:

"In just 30 minutes we were able to generate a report, email it to [Dell], and ... [Dell] was blown away with our response time and the accuracy and efficiency of the data."

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