Justin Sommer on Collaboration & the Power of Persistence
12 Feb 2024
Justin Sommer, Executive Director of Preble County Development Partnership, joined Bethany Quinn, Executive Vice President of Golden Shovel Agency, on ShovelTalk to discuss 2024 priorities and how economic developers can make an impact in their communities.
Justin began his career in economic development on the workforce side and worked for the City of Piqua and the private sector before becoming the Executive Director in Preble County. His diverse backgrounds prepared him to ‘solve the puzzle’ and tackle big challenges like developing sites, building residential homes, and attracting more workers - all goals he has for 2024. All of those projects take time and persistence. “I wanted to be a baseball player when I was a kid. If someone had a .300 batting average they are likely to get into the Hall of Fame because they’re really good. But that also means that they missed 70% of the time,” said Justin. “In economic development, we are going to be told no a lot. You need to keep stepping up to the plate and taking a swing, because eventually, you’ll make contact.”
And that’s exactly what Justin is doing - taking the swing. But, he’s not doing it alone. “It takes partnerships and collaboration to produce results. That’s also what I love about rural economic development - you get to work with people who share your passion for making the community even better.”
That spirit of collaboration and appreciating what you have, but working to make it better, has helped Justin to navigate the tensions that can exist when change is necessary to keep a community thriving. “All economic development is local,” said Justin. “Whatever project it is will eventually land on a site and sites are local so you have to have collaboration and community engagement.” Engagement in Preble County includes one-on-one meetings, round table sessions, town halls, and conducting surveys. The organization publishes the results of that engagement so community members can clearly see the priorities that have been outlined. “We want to be transparent in the activities we engage in. The public has to know that the efforts we are pursuing align with the goals they have for the community and that they meet the needs of our employers,” he said.
Justin is also a firm believer in being prepared. “Much of what we do as economic developers is to prepare and plan for something we hope will happen.” A perfect example of the power of planning can be found in Preble County, in a community with fewer than 2,000 people that had seen hard times. Downtown buildings had high vacancy rates and were rundown, and the community wasn’t thriving. Undeterred, they partnered with a local university to complete a planning study, even though it was unclear why they needed one. But, when it came time to compete for a project, they were ready to have conversations with the company and the regional and state development agencies who needed to support it. Because of that planning study and documentation demonstrating the project would be successful, they were able to pull the pieces together to get the deal. Now the company has created 70 jobs, is building a new headquarters, and buying more downtown buildings. It will be a hugely impactful project. And the company’s not done.
“Most companies start small and grow into something. Our job as economic developers is to create the environment where growth can happen,” said Justin. “That often begins in the planning stage so community leaders can put the infrastructure and assets in place necessary to support business growth.”
Ultimately, Justin believes in the power of community and working together. “All economic development is local,” said Justin. “Whatever project it is will eventually land on a site and sites are local so you need collaboration and community engagement.” That strategy is working well in Preble County and can be applied to communities everywhere. “I encourage new economic developers to reach out to me. I would be happy to share strategies, give suggestions, and discuss my approach to community engagement and development. A lot of economic development success is because you’re persistent. You have a great support system and network in place of economic developers. Ohio is an example of developing young talent. For people who are new in their career, reach out to old timers like me who are willing to answer questions and help you,” he said.