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The Power of Vision: Making the Strategic Plan Come Alive

by Fred D. Baldwin

Robert E. Shepherd, executive director of the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, in Asheville, North Carolina, explains the benefits of strategic planning with a quote from Wayne Gretzky, ice hockey ace: "I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been." Planning, Shepherd suggests, is the only way to stay on top of any game.

It's an appealing one-liner, but it begs the question: How do you know where the puck is going to be?

The answer, of course, is that you don't—not for sure. In the world, as on the rink, things change too fast for certainty. What you can do is work with a team, set up opportunities, and position yourself to take advantage of any break, planned or not, that comes your way. Or, as the great French chemist and bacteriologist Louis Pasteur put it: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

At the federal agency level, strategic planning is mandated by the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993. The Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) had begun strategic planning well before this law went into effect, and ARC was one of the first agencies to complete and submit its plan to the Office of Management and Budget. It was published early in 1996 as Setting a Regional Agenda: ARC Strategic Plan.

Organizations and communities developing a strategic plan first seek a broad vision of their future and then narrow their focus to a few major issues that they think will be crucial to achieving the vision. This requires that they involve many people in the process, including people outside the lead organization. In the lexicon of planners, strategic planning is contrasted with "comprehensive planning," which is detailed and focused inward on the full range of activities performed by the planning organization. Strategic planning, in short, is a process rather than a document, and, if done effectively, it's a process that continues long after any formal report is completed.

For example, the third goal of ARC's strategic plan states: "The people and organizations of Appalachia will have the vision and capacity to mobilize and work together for sustained economic progress and improvement of their communities." An explicit element of the ARC plan's "how we will get there" strategy involves support for local-level planning. This process is open-ended, dynamic, and ongoing. Actually, ARC had begun to support regional strategic planning in response to local initiatives, well in advance of formally completing its own strategic plan.

This article examines the experiences of two Appalachian local development districts (LDDs) that received early help with strategic planning from ARC. The first is the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, which serves four western North Carolina counties (Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania). The second is the Northwest Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission, serving eight northwestern Pennsylvania counties from offices in Franklin.

The Power of the Idea

Land-of-Sky sought and received ARC assistance to develop its own strategic plan in the late 1980s. Although the idea began as a 25th-anniversary project for the organization, initial support wasn't unanimous. A skeptical board member questioned what good the plan would do since the organization had no power of its own to implement any resulting goals.

"That was a good question," Shepherd says. "We replied, 'We have only the power of the idea.' We made it clear that implementation wouldn't be a Land-of-Sky mission. We'd look at needs of the region that no one would address without a vision."

Task force members from the four counties numbered roughly one hundred people, and many others participated. The immediate product was a document called Regional Vision '95, which outlined goals under five headings: education, land use/growth management, infrastructure, protection of the natural environment, and economic development.

"Our kind of organization," Shepherd explains, "tends to respond to the needs of our constituents—demand-response outlook, I call it—but loses sight of the big picture. So we try to ask, 'What are the needs of the future that someone should be dealing with?' It enables us to bring some big issues to the table that would otherwise be neglected."

The environmental section provides good examples, Shepherd says, of the kinds of issues "that no one would address without a vision." Western North Carolina's high elevation combines with high rainfall to produce lush vegetation and to create ecological niches for plant species that grow from Florida to Canada, but rarely in close proximity to each other. Everyone in the area was conscious of the need to protect these unique environmental resources. Yet it was not clear what ought to be done or who ought to be doing it. From the process of developing Regional Vision '95, at least three environmental initiatives emerged and are currently under way.

One initiative is an inventory of environmentally unique sites throughout the region, supported by the Conservation Trust for North Carolina. The goal is to produce a map showing fragile, irreplaceable resources, enabling local governments to channel development into less sensitive areas.

A second initiative involves air quality. The city of Asheville became the first of several organizations to fund pieces of a regional air-quality assessment. It contracted with Land-of-Sky to study the relationship of transportation to air quality. In 1996 more than a hundred people attended a regional conference on air quality and recommended a massive public education effort. A regional clean-air campaign is now being conducted with financial help from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Land-of-Sky also successfully sought funds from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina in order to broaden this assessment.

A third initiative involves the French Broad River. Land-of-Sky received $110,000 from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, a state-created nonprofit organization, for a four-county effort called the French Broad River Corridor Protection Initiative. The French Broad suffered serious degradation from industrial pollution prior to passage of environmental protection legislation in the 1970s, but its water quality has improved to the point where it is now a major recreational resource for activities like rafting. As such, however, it attracts development, especially since the land adjacent to its banks is more nearly level than most land in the area.

A study being conducted by Land-of-Sky will identify key tracts along the river to be designated as riparian buffers. That is, they will remain green areas, either through donation or through purchase of scenic easements. The study will be done in collaboration with RiverLink, a volunteer organization based in Asheville. A report is expected in 1998.

Note that, unlike direct development projects such as roads, water lines, and other infrastructure, the environmental spinoffs from the Land-of-Sky strategic planning process do not lend themselves to neat success stories. There's no short-term, point-to-point link between an air-quality campaign and job growth, or between a catalog of natural resources and a decision on how to preserve them. The only certainty is that the long-range vision of Regional Vision '95 includes both growth and protection of quality of life; the examples illustrate the importance of regarding strategic planning as a continuing process.

An Articulated Vision

One reason for involving so many people in strategic planning is to provide at least some assurance that the result won't be a document that sits on a shelf. But the involvement of many people also guarantees that the planning process will not always go smoothly. Shepherd notes several problems planners face. One is a tendency to avoid making hard choices by finding unobjectionable language to paper over problems. Another is "endless demands for data" that gobble up staff time and resources without ultimately contributing much to decisions. Still another is the sheer impossibility of getting commitments from people who weren't direct participants in the plan's development.

"One of the problems with a multi-county plan is that you can't get everybody to the table," he says. "You need that buy-in. Even late in the process is better than afterwards. That's much better than saying later, 'These hundred or so people came up with this idea, and they think you should do it.' "

"It's a messy process," agrees Jim Stokoe, assistant director at Land-of-Sky and co-author of a book on strategic planning in solid waste management. "I see it as a funnel that narrows down. It starts with something big and mushy. The details—who will do it, who is going to pay for it—become clearer at the end. There is one big danger," Stokoe continues, "at the front, and one toward the end of the process. The front-end danger is that the strategic plan will not be based on an articulated vision. Then there'll be nothing to excite anyone. People will be driven by their own interests with no cohesive vision to bring them together. At the other end, it's like the realtors' refrain: 'Location, location, location.' Except that it's 'Implementation, implementation, implementation.' You write it and constantly monitor it."

When things go right, the enthusiasm is contagious and implementation begins almost immediately. Stokoe recalls working as facilitator for a strategic plan for a North Carolina county outside the Land-of-Sky district. During an idea-gathering session, someone suggested that an old school building might be used as a Chamber of Commerce community center.

"Right in the middle of the meeting," Stokoe says, "one person yells across the room to the superintendent of schools: 'You think we can set up a meeting this afternoon between your people and my people?' They started wheeling and dealing right there on the spot."

Roger Swann is chairman of the Madison County Economic Development Board, an organization assisted by Land-of-Sky staff in writing its own strategic plan. The Madison County leaders saw job creation as one of five key issues for the county and set a goal of 500 new jobs by the year 2000. While considering what meeting that goal would require, they identified a shortage of level building sites along Interstate 26, which runs through Madison County.

This was hardly a surprising observation for an Appalachian community, but the process carried the Madison County planners beyond conventional thinking. They noted that the cuts through mountainsides needed to complete improvements on Interstate 26 would generate more rock and soil than would be needed for filling low places. Why, it was asked, couldn't that "cut dirt" be used for fill at industrial sites?

The answer was that it could. Getting needed state and federal approvals was time-consuming, but the effort finally led to a win-win arrangement. By identifying suitable sites in the broad path of road operations (a neat case of "skating ahead of the puck"), the county acquires more level land, and road builders lower their costs for disposal of debris. This arrangement, says Swann, is one reason the county is halfway toward its 500-job goal.

In 1995, impressed by the potential relevance of the Land-of-Sky experience to other areas, ARC and the Economic Development Administration (a U.S. Department of Commerce agency) arranged for the guidelines developed by the LDD staff and a consultant to become the basis of a planning manual published as Shaping a Region's Future: A Guide to Strategic Decision Making for Regions. Land-of-Sky co-authored that report with consultant Bill Dodge of Pittsburgh, who in 1997 became the executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils. Dodge convinced the National League of Cities to republish the manual in its Local Officials Guide series.

The manual included case studies from seven other organizations (both within and outside of Appalachia) whose strategic plans were either completed or then in process. In addition to Land-of-Sky, the Appalachian organizations featured were the Appalachian Regional Development Partnership (Greenville, South Carolina), the SEDA-Council of Governments (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania), the (Radford, Virginia) New River Valley Planning District Commission (whose efforts to plan a transition from an economy heavily dependent on military spending are described in "Going for the Goals"), and the North Georgia Regional Development Center (Dalton).

A Long-Term Commitment to Planning

The Northwest Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission, in Franklin, was not among the organizations included in those case studies, but it has also demonstrated a long-term commitment to planning, assisted by ARC and other agencies. As early as 1972, ARC funded what was then called an "Areawide Action Program." Roughly a decade later, ARC supported a similar process, this time covering a larger geographic area. Finally, in the early 1990s, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania made it possible for the commission to develop a strategic plan.

The planning process was similar to that used in North Carolina—extensive rounds of community meetings involving representatives from government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. The product was significantly different. While the North Carolina plan gives heavy emphasis to issues that might otherwise be overlooked, such as environmental protection, the northwest Pennsylvania plan zeroes in on manufacturing, which has been the backbone of the region's economy for much of this century.

Part of this focus, says commission executive director William R. Steiner, was determined by the terms of the grant available from the state. During the 1980s, the region hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs; 18,000 of them (almost 20 percent) were lost between 1980 and 1991. This trend has slowed in the 1990s, but not reversed. Between 1991 and 1995, an additional 3,700 manufacturing jobs were lost. Obviously, strategic planning offers no magic for turning this trend around. During the most recent year (July 1996 through June 1997), two substantial manufacturing employers in the area downsized or relocated, costing the area almost 220 jobs between them. Nevertheless, the existence of a strategic plan provides leverage for new job-creation efforts, Steiner says.

"It's kind of like a business plan for a small organization," he explains. "Going through a strategic process that involves the whole board and is based on good research gives me the basic justification for going out and talking about these things. You can talk ideas, ideas, ideas, but once it gets on paper, it becomes legitimized. People say, 'Why are you coming to me about these things, Steiner?' I say, 'Read our plan.' Some of our plan has materialized already. Some of it we're still working on."

Internal and External Plans

In fact, the commission developed two plans, both completed in 1992. One, prepared primarily by commission staff in consultation with other groups, focused on the commission's own operations. The second, written with the help of outside consultants, focused on the region's broader needs.

"Quite frankly," Steiner says, "the one we did in-house for the organization has had limited success compared to the regional economic development plan. That's because old ways of doing business are so hard to break. I'm including us in that statement as well as outside organizations." Even so, one major goal of the in-house plan—to reduce heavy dependence on federal funding—has been partially achieved. Steiner says that federal funds once accounted for approximately 80 percent of the commission's budget; the current figure is closer to 60 percent. "We have increased our private-sector contributions," Steiner says. "I took that goal and used it to open doors to utilities and banks."

The external plan emphasized maintaining manufacturing jobs and creating new ones. One result has been a new focus on exports. During the past 18 months, the commission staff has worked with ten companies in food processing, one of the area's core industries identified in the plan. Denise McCloskey, the commission's international trade specialist, helps these firms with market research and contacting potential customers.

That's beginning to pay off. For example, the commission recently helped the George J. Howe Company, a Grove City (Mercer County) firm specializing in snack foods like coffee products, nuts, and candies, exhibit its capabilities at the Food Marketing Institute's major international trade show in Chicago. Since that time, the firm has had contract offers from three different countries and a nibble, so to speak, from a distributor in China.

There's also Dean Custom Foods in North East (Erie County), which converts grapes grown in the area into grape juice concentrate for sale in bulk.

"They really can't take their products to most shows since they don't bottle anything," McCloskey says, "so we found a suitable matchmaker show in Canada. [The firm's president] went up there and had five or six appointments with possible buyers. He signed a contract with one of them, and he's sold $50,000 worth already. And it's going to be an ongoing process."

"We're currently pursuing a target wood initiative," Steiner adds. "We hope to take advantage of the raw material that's coming into maturity in Pennsylvania—finest cherry in the world and excellent quality oak and maple. We're hoping to get a mobile training program in wood technology. That means hauling the latest technology around from county to county—laser equipment, etching machines, or maybe computerized milling and cutting equipment." As the world changes, some aspects of the 1992 plan have, for all practical purposes, been discarded. For example, one section envisioned a special effort to create new retail opportunities.

"Since that report was written," Steiner explains, "we've seen the big outlet malls come in and the big discounters. It's going to be extremely hard for small businesses to compete in this market. It would have to be an extremely small niche. For example, we have a lot of bicycle trails, and Wal-Mart doesn't deal with the high-end bicycles of the world. So we've seen some specialized bike shops spring up. Yet in our region, a rural area, you can't have very many of those."

The main thrusts of the plan are very much alive, however. One of these involves improving entrepreneurs' access to start-up capital.

Cultivating Entrepreneurs

The commission and the other six LDDs in Pennsylvania are organizing a community development finance organization, based on an initiative by Governor Thomas Ridge. The state share is expected to be around $15 million, and it's hoped that banks and private industry will contribute at least twice that much. The organization, as a non-governmental entity, will be able not only to make loans but also to take equity positions in new firms. The expectation is that the new entity will, in time, become self-supporting as a result of the success of the businesses in which it invests.

A second project to help entrepreneurs find start-up capital isn't really quite a "project" yet, but it is an idea close to Steiner's heart. Basically, it involves identifying people in salaried jobs who have the potential to become entrepreneurs. Screening would be an important element in the process.

Steiner describes his recent contact with a man from the area working as a plant manager for a plasterboard manufacturer in a non-Appalachian state. He wanted to return home but felt unable to leave what was, by most measures, a good job.

"I flew him to Pittsburgh for screening," Steiner says, "and got a report that said, 'Highly recommended for entrepreneurial investment.' We went around and talked with five prospective investors. He'll be our first custom wall maker in western Pennsylvania. It cost me maybe three hundred bucks to fly him in and maybe seven hundred to test him. The rest was my time, and I've had a great yearning to bring the kids back home to Appalachia."

So far, this strategy for cultivating entrepreneurs is scarcely more than a gleam in Steiner's eye. It's one more attempt to do systematically something that previously was left to chance. Painful as it is to lose Fortune 500 companies, Steiner recognizes that their mobility is a fact of life and that major metropolitan centers will always have some advantages for firms as large as, say, Quaker State.

"It's an evolutionary process," he says. "The Henry Fords of tomorrow are being born today. I'm sitting in a town where the major employer is Joy Mining Machinery. In 1908 Joe Joy was just a guy who had an idea to build a continuous coal miner. Today that's a multinational company."

Overall, Steiner sums up, having a strategic plan is no guarantee of success, but not having one is very nearly a guarantee of failure.

"It set an agenda for us," he says. "That's the biggest plus. It also caused local leaders to think about what they were doing. It brought people together. The minuses? Just that not everything in there is doable for a lot of reasons. The economy has changed. There's a lack of state and federal funding. Anytime you do a plan, not all of it is going to be accomplished. You can say that about life, too."

That's pretty close to how Shepherd sums up his North Carolina experience. "Thinking strategically is about the only way you can get anything done in our work," he concludes. "We can't levy taxes or pass ordinances. We deal in persuasion and in ideas that we can persuade someone to carry out. But good ideas have a lot of power. Strategic planning is a way to find out what good ideas will have support in the community."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.