Texas Secretary of State Phil Wilson (left) addresses the crowd at Thursday's opening of theEntrepreneur Assistance Center for the North Texas Regional Center for Innovation and Commercialization, while Alliance Bank President Tom Sellers (right) and EDC Director Roger Feagley listen. "This is not doing things the same old way," Wilson said. "Growing our own, in a rural environment, hasn't been done before, and I think it shows visionary leadership."
Staff Photo By Angela Pitts

A Center for Ideas

New economic development facility represents fresh approach to building jobs, growth

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK, News-Telegram Managing Editor

March 2, 2008 - When a new public building opens, such as the Sulphur Springs-Hopkins County Economic Development Corporation did with its new offices Thursday, you can expect the usual suspects -- elected officeholders, the city manager, the occasional bank president -- to attend.

But what was the Texas Secretary of State doing here? And that lady -- isn't she with the governor's office? Isn't that guy one of the people that oversees the Texas Emerging Technology Fund that's handed out $32 million in North Texas in just a couple of years?

People like that don't show up for grand openings unless it's a big deal.

And make no mistake -- this IS a big deal.

The office building, located off Shannon Road just north of NetData, is not just the home of the local EDC.

Officially, it's the Entrepreneur Assistance Center for the North Texas Regional Center for Innovation and Commercialization. Unofficially, it's a quantum shift from the old way of economic development, the tried but often untrue theory that if you wave incentive dollars in the face of outside businesses, they'll relocate to your town.

Or, as EDC Director Roger Feagley, citing the old adage that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, put it, "We're trying something different."

Feagley explained that the idea for the center grew out of a search for solutions to the challenge of creating jobs in Hopkins County. With an aging workforce and a labor market that doesn't rely heavily on high-tech industries, there has a been a "brain drain" in recent years. Children grow up here, graduate from high school and go to college where they train for high-paying jobs that there is no market for locally. Consequently, they move to where those careers are.

But most of the high-tech fields are already established in other areas of the state and country, Feagley said.

"So we came up with this idea of growing your own," he explained. "What you need is people with good ideas, and we thought people in East Texas have good ideas -- we just need to nurture them."

The ultimated vision of the new Entrepreneur Assistance Center for the North Texas Regional Center for Innovation and Commercialization is a partnership between the EDC, the RCIC for North Texas, Texas A&M University-Commerce, Paris Junior College, the Texas Extension Service, the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, or any other instution or organization that can help nurture ideas into economic development.

"This is a very foresighted and strategic investment on y'all's part," said Mike Lockerd, who spent some 40 years as an EDS executive and CEO of his own company before becoming executive director of the North Texas RCIC. "Are we going to start a company tomorrow? Probably not. But it's kind of like this: If you want hummingbirds, plant flowers. This facility is the flower for the kinds of hummingbirds we want to attract, people that may build business around new concepts and create jobs and economic development."

It's an idea that Secretary of State Phil Wilson said is stunningly simple and creative.

"This could be a model for other rural communities across the state to come look at," he said. "I think this is a great formula for success."

Wilson was part of the team that created the RCIC concept in Texas a few years ago, and he stressed the importance of the term "regional."

"Economic development is more than just what happens in Dallas and other big cities," he said. "We're more than just the Metroplex. We're going to leverage opportunities here in Hopkins County, Sulphur Springs and Northeast Texas for entrepreneurs."

Locked praised the EDC and Sulphur Springs City Council for having the vision to see how forward thinking the idea is. empower somebody and give them the knowledge they need to succeed, something Wilson echoed.

"What you're doing here today is very important," the Secretary of State said. "Under the leadership of your City Council, the EDC and the RCIC leadership, you've taken the opportunity as a smaller, rural community to leverage and collaborate on the ideas that may come to this part of the world.

"Y'all really do understand the power of teamwork," he added. "I think this facility speaks volumes about the local community's commitment to economic development and bringing jobs and wealth creation to Hopkins County."

Lockerd said the facility will allow people with visionary ideas tto work with resource partners -- educational insitutions, EDCs, investment groups and others -- to build a culture which "we hope will let businesses based on technology take root and grow."

"If we do it right, maybe we'll grow another Texas Instruments or a Google," Lockerd said.

Wilson, who would later in the day announced Texas Emerging Technology Fund (TETF) investments of $12 million in five Dallas-area tech-based businesses, also said the new facility is a unique concept in Texas, and not just for a small town.

"This is the very first one that has a dedicated facility focused on local entrepreneurship. This is the first one that is fundamentally formed by and committed to by the local community," he said. "In term so cities of your size, and even cities larger than your size, you are breaking the ice."

The ability to offer information to a new entrepreneur, Lockerd added, is invaluable.

"What they don't know is more important than the money they don't have," he said. "What to do next is the only thing that is in shorter supply than money."

The ability to work with educational partners like Paris Junior College and Texas A&M University-Commerce only adds to the outlook for success.

"You have huge opportunities that are very unique" Wilson said. "This is not doing things the same old way. Growing our own, in a rural environment, hasn't been done before, and I think it shows visionary leadership."

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