Originally Published: April 8, 2017 6:01 a.m.
It is a dilemma that has long perplexed local officials: Prescott is home to one of the premier technology-based universities in the nation, yet few tech-job opportunities are available in the community for graduates.
The issue has come up frequently at recent meetings, as the city has looked at ways to capitalize on its somewhat unique position of having not just Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU), Yavapai College, and Prescott College within its boundaries, but a Northern Arizona University campus in the region as well.
“We graduate these amazing young people, and after they graduate, they leave,” Embry-Riddle Chancellor Frank Ayers told the Prescott City Council in a recent report on the university’s continuing growth.
Ayres says ERAU students often express interest in staying in Prescott, but end up leaving to launch their careers. “We have plenty of grads who want to live here,” he said.
Jason Kadah, director of communications for Embry-Riddle, says less than 5 percent of the university’s graduates have remained in the area over the years.
Ayres maintains that, with the university’s prominent program in cyber-security, “(Prescott) could certainly become a hub for cyber-security (industry).”
Jim Robb, the city’s new economic development consultant, is especially attuned to Prescott’s potential from his previous work in technology-center communities such as Seattle, and Bend, Oregon.
While working in Seattle from 1985 to 2000, Robb said he dealt extensively with start-ups, and watched that community become a leader in the tech industry.
In the beginning, Robb said, “We had a lot of people saying ‘how can we stay here and live?’”
Robb, who moved to Prescott in 2010 after semi-retiring in Scottsdale in 2000, sees potential for a similar surge in the tech industry in Prescott – especially when compared with Bend, Oregon, a community of about 81,000 population.
Bend capitalized on its mountain terrain and outdoor-oriented recreation scene, Robb said, combining tourism and economic development.
“Four years ago, Bend/Redmond was 169th (in the Milken Institute’s ranking of best-performing small cities), and in 2016, they were number 1,” Robb said, adding that the community “didn’t lose its culture and charm. They did a fabulous job of blending (economic growth and preservation).”
Earlier this year, the Prescott City Council approved a $44,100 contract with The Robb Group, LLC – in part, to fill the role of the economic initiatives director position that was vacated with the Dec. 31, 2016, departure of former Director Jeff Burt.
Prescott City Manager Michael Lamar said at the time that a consultant arrangement would save the city money by eliminating the cost of a full-time position with benefits, and also would allow the city to focus on specific economic-development efforts.
The contract with Robb notes that Prescott “is looking to stimulate economic development and revenue growth, through strategic business development activities.”
It lists a scope of work that includes “the pursuit of high net-worth investors, investment groups, corporate executives within consultant’s personal and professional network of contacts …”
That, in turn, could provide value to the city in a number of areas, the contract states, including:
• Investment for the technology incubation fund.
• Funding for City of Prescott local university and college technologies and/or the licensing of intellectual property.
• Direct relationships, introductions and/or referrals to other investors, as well as potential corporate, institutional and public or private industry partners.
• Assistance with creation of an economic incentives policy.
• Assistance with in-fill of existing retail, commercial, and manufacturing properties.
In addition, Robb is also expected to be involved in various business, industry, or government economic development events and forums on behalf of the city, and facilitate a two-day economic development strategy session with the city’s leadership team, as well as another two-day session later for evaluation of Prescott’s tourism and economic devilment departments.
Acknowledging that – at six months – his contract is short-term, Robb said, “I’m trying to get some sparks going.” The strategy will involve building a foundation for future economic growth, he added.
While Prescott has the advantage of having four colleges and universities in the area, Robb said the community also has some challenges.
For instance, he pointed out that Bend/Redmond has an airport that provides direct access to other major tech hubs – something Prescott does not currently have.
Still, he says it is important to move forward. “Let’s just start. There’s a legacy we can leave for our young people.”