CEDS Spotlight: River Valley Regional Commission

The Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) has the potential to be a true road map that brings together many voices from your region to form a common vision for economic prosperity and resilience.  Through the CEDS Spotlight case studies series, the NADO Research Foundation is highlighting best practices and innovative elements of CEDS planning, development, and implementation from EDDs and other regional development organizations across the country.

Inspired by the possibilities offered in EDA’s CEDS Content Guidelines, staff at the River Valley Regional Commission (RVRC) sought to develop a CEDS that would be visual, engaging, and tell the story of their diverse region in West Central Georgia.  “We really heard EDA staff when they said they wanted the CEDS to be innovative and user-friendly,” says Jim Livingston, Community and Economic Development Director at RVRC.  “We also heard our communities that said they didn’t want something overly technical and intimidating.”  Recognizing that they didn’t have anyone on staff with the graphic design skills to create the type of printed document they wanted, RVRC looked into other options to meet their vision for a new kind of CEDS.

Enter Esri’s Story Maps.  Story Maps are online applications that can be built to share information through text, maps, photos, videos, charts, and more.  They are meant to be easy to make and easy to navigate and have been created to showcase topics ranging from transportation infrastructure to architectural heritage to public health indicators to even the history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Government agencies, non-profits, museums, schools, and many other entities have used Story Maps to feature their work and research.  This template-based online platform seemed a natural fit to serve as the home for River Valley’s 2017 CEDS.  “Using off-the-shelf software that seamlessly worked on any device, yet was able to use mapping, video, and imagery to help convey the plan allowed us to push our ability to innovate and provide a plan that was robust, but accessible,” says Livingston.

Readers of RVRC’s Story Map-enhanced CEDS are able to scroll seamlessly through multiple sections, which are well-organized and supplemented with maps, images, and videos.  The site is economical with the amount of text and data provided; those wanting additional information about regional economic and social data, SWOT analysis entries, survey responses, action plans, and more can clink on hyperlinks that provide PDF documents with more detail.  Presenting the material in this format “allowed us to link the deep dive we took with the CEDS process, but maintain a simple user-friendly interface that any elected official or interested citizen could access,” says Livingston.

Readers of RVRC’s Story Map-enhanced CEDS are able to scroll seamlessly through multiple sections, which are well-organized and supplemented with maps, images, and videos.
Readers of RVRC’s Story Map-enhanced CEDS are able to scroll seamlessly through multiple sections, which are well-organized and supplemented with maps, images, and videos.

It was critical that the CEDS represented the broad socio-economic diversity of the region and demonstrated the mix of issues that are important to different parts of the 16 counties which are comprised of cities, small towns, and rural areas.  Case in point: RVRC’s service region includes Columbus (the second largest city in Georgia and home to three Fortune 1000 companies), as well as a county ranked the fifth poorest in the country.  RVRC staff knew that for the CEDS to gain traction and be of value, residents, elected officials, businesses, and others all had to see themselves reflected in the plan.

River Valley’s CEDS was able to meet this goal because it draws on the knowledge and insight of local residents and leaders.  An online survey garnered over 250 responses that were reviewed and analyzed by geographic area in four different ways to ensure that regional differences were respected and incorporated into the final CEDS.  The survey revealed different priorities in the urban core (Columbus), Rural Centers (Cordele and Americus), and rural areas and the CEDS clearly notes these various preferences and needs across localities.  In an effort to build on local efforts already underway, the CEDS seeks to complement existing plans and initiatives, such as the Columbus 2025 economic development plan, the One Sumter initiative, and Grow Randolph initiative.  As the CEDS notes, “These plans serve as models for self-reliance and economic resiliency, and their findings underpin this Regional CEDS.”

No hard copy of River Valley’s 2017 CEDS exists – it all lives online in both the Story Map and the accompanying linked pages with additional data. However, a one-pager has been designed for staff to share at meetings or events to direct readers to the Story Map website to learn more.  The response has been overwhelmingly positive from stakeholders in the region who have embraced this new digital platform to access information to generate conversation about the future of West Central Georgia.

River Valley’s experience can serve as inspiration for other economic development districts that are serious about exploring new, interactive platforms for their CEDS but may feel they don’t have the in-house expertise to do so. “Overall, the Story Map has been a great program for us.  It is super easy to use, as simple as PowerPoint,” Jim Livingston says.  Simply put: Don’t let a lack of staff design expertise or the belief that it takes a lot of money to make a visual, interactive CEDS get in the way of pursuing something new and innovative for your region’s CEDS.

An online survey garnered over 250 responses in the region that were reviewed and analyzed by geographic area in four different ways to ensure that regional differences were respected and incorporated into the CEDS.
An online survey garnered over 250 responses in the region that were reviewed and analyzed by geographic area in four different ways to ensure that regional differences were respected and incorporated into the CEDS.

An Interview with Jim Livingston, Community and Economic Development Director, River Valley Regional Commission

What does the CEDS mean to your region? How has it helped shape the conversation about regional economic development?

Our regional CEDS is shaped by our conversations about economic development in the region and reflects the desire and wishes of our communities by mirroring their own local economic development plans. Our region is varied; Columbus serves as headquarters for several Fortune 1000 companies and Ft. Benning is a major regional employer.  But much of our region is very rural and very poor with limited investment or opportunities. One document could not fit all of the economic development needs of our region.

We had two ways our local conversations are reflected in the CEDS about economic development in the region. First was through survey response. Our online survey was fairly typical, but we were able to separate out responses based on geography, therefore determining differences in preferences and perceptions of strength and weaknesses for Columbus compared to other areas in the region.  The second was to work with our local economic developers and dig into and understand their excellent existing plans they have created to make sure our regional plan captures and reflects all the work they have done.  Our plan reflects these local efforts, and through our ongoing working relationships and collaboration we can reinforce each other.

How have you incorporated the concept of resilience into your CEDS?

Because our CEDS was delivered exclusively online, we incorporated interactive maps and videos throughout the document. We were able to prominently embed the NADO resilience video which is a succinct articulation of both economic and natural disaster resilience. We also highlighted examples of disasters the region has experienced in the past as a reminder that these disasters can happen anywhere and anytime, but that we can recover from them with planning and preparation.

What ways have you developed and nurtured partnerships with both traditional partners and underrepresented groups?

Our CEDS document, because it is designed to be viewed from a phone, computer, or any electronic device, takes a powerful and robust message, and simplifies it so it can easily be used by underrepresented groups. The format prioritizes a user-friendly interface, making a previously complex report simple and approachable. The simplicity of the Story Map delivery does not diminish from the robust and thorough research and work done for the CEDS, which can be viewed through links and data that can be accessed throughout the document.

How have you taken your CEDS process from planning to implementation? Any strong examples?

Like most CEDS, we have our list of action items that we hope to achieve. Our most successful efforts to go from plan to implementation has been a desire to help further rural broadband in the region. This matches federal and state investments and we fully intend to work regionally to continue to implement our initiatives. First amongst them is a demand-based survey tool to help quantify our time and see where our residents within the region are getting online and what they are doing there. This will ultimately help drive the quest for investment and show a willingness to pay for it. We believe this survey process, as identified in our CEDS, is very timely and will greatly benefit the region.

  • View RVRC’s 2017 online CEDS here
  • Want to learn more about this CEDS?  Contact Jim Livingston, Community and Economic Development Director, at [email protected]
  • Click here to learn more about Esri Story Maps

Click here to access additional case studies in the CEDS Spotlight series

Do you have a best practice or innovative approach to developing, designing, and implementing the CEDS?  Contact NADO RF Associate Director Brett Schwartz at  [email protected].

This case studies series is presented through NADO’s Stronger CEDS, Stronger Regions program, funded through a generous grant from the US Economic Development Administration.

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