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City Gets IBM “A-Team” to Help Attract Businesses

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The city announced it had won a nifty prize last week: the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Grant. A team of super-sharp IBM employees will come to Richmond in 2013 to help the city solve one big problem.

Which one? Richmond has a lot of problems: widespread poverty, struggling schools and regional friction, among them. What did the city choose?

In a news release, the mayor said the city asked IBM "to help us create an economic development tool that will improve the health of our city through the strengthening of our neighborhoods; an instrument that focuses on the community level to support the attraction and retention of neighborhood businesses."

After reading it several times we had no idea what that meant.

City spokesman Mike Wallace provides some clarification. The city wants to develop an "electronic instrument," he says, that can analyze multiple sets of data on a particular area, such as population, income and property values. Such a tool could help companies choose the optimal spot to locate a new business, such as a grocery store, or tell the city how its investments have paid off.

As it stands, Wallace says, this data is scattered among various city departments, as well as state and federal agencies.

The city regularly pays consultants to do this kind of market analysis on a one-off basis. One such effort is under way for the North Side commercial district along Brookland Park Boulevard. Economic and Community Development Director Lee Downey says a new tool won't eliminate the need for these studies, but will make the process easier.

It's also important for the city to make up-to-date market data easy for companies to access, Downey says, to show why Richmond's a good place to bring a business. "If a locality doesn't have your best foot forward, it's easy to be eliminated before you even know you're being studied."

IBM will provide its services, valued at $400,000, at no charge. But the team won't develop the tool for Richmond, says Ari Fishkind, a public affairs officer for IBM. They're idea people, not programmers.

"The A-Team," as Fishkind calls it, will live here for three weeks to absorb the character and atmosphere of Richmond. It will present a summary report to the city, followed six weeks later by a comprehensive written plan to be shared with the public.

Neighborhood leaders often criticize the city for commissioning endless consultant studies and then failing to follow up. That's a familiar refrain in other cities too, Fishkind says: "So Richmond is in very good company."

While IBM won't require the city to put its recommendations into action, the company will check in to see what happens, Fishkind says. "We think the advice we give is actionable, something they can actually implement."

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