Getting in The Game With Site Certification

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Given the current robust economy and record low unemployment, much attention has been given recently to the importance of workforce availability and readiness. While workforce does continue to be the most important component in site location decisions, communities should not overlook the importance of site development and promotion. In order to even get in the game and promote a community's workforce, cultural amenities and other assets, the community must first have a "product" to present in the form of an existing building or a site suitable for an employer's project.

A key component in identifying which sites and existing buildings to promote, is the ability to make those assets readily available for occupancy or vertical construction. Over time, many states (27 at last count), some communities and a few private firms have offered “shovel-ready” or site certification designations to assist in this process. The idea behind most of the programs is to undertake a due diligence process that would be consistent with the process a potential user would employ, identifying any issues relating to site conditions, required infrastructure or entitlements. Those issues would then be addressed or, at a minimum, a plan would be developed for addressing them at the time a project presents itself. 

Despite the good intentions of these programs, they have had a number of shortcomings. First, there is no agreed standard as to what level of due diligence is required to be deemed a certified or shovel ready site. In addition, the programs have generally only focused on greenfield sites for new construction. They have, for the most part, ignored brownfield sites or existing buildings, which are often more readily available for development and in greater need of marketing and promotional support.

A targeted, successful site certification program should consider all potential development sites, including those with environmental challenges or existing buildings.  Additionally, the program should include a rigorous, independent third party analysis of the subject property and an honest evaluation of its readiness for development or occupancy. To achieve certification, any issues that would prevent normal development of the property should be satisfactorily addressed, or a concrete plan should be adopted to do so, along with identifying a source for necessary funding.  In addition, the program should include an ongoing review and re-certification process to ensure that any changes in land conditions, zoning, adjoining land uses, etc., don’t negatively impact the original certification. 

Finally, the process should ideally result in issuance of a comprehensive report, with supporting documentation that outlines the site certification process.  The report would include a detailed summary of the process undertaken, any issues identified and the resolution of existing issues or an outline of the plan to do so. Such a report will assist in supporting the rigorous process of the certification review, serve as a resource for a potential developer of the property and supplement a community’s marketing materials and RFP responses for potential users.

A site certification designation that achieves these objectives can return significant benefits to communities and the end users of the certified properties.  The site certification process can significantly shorten the development timeline once a site is selected, saving the end user both time and money. A meaningful, recognized site certification can also serve as an important marketing tool by separating a site from others under consideration and gaining inclusion in more select property listings. 

Finally, gaining a meaningful site certification designation requires significant cooperation between many parties, including private land owners, economic development officials, governmental representatives, elected officials and state agencies. This proactive partnership among various stakeholders is a clear signal to site selectors and corporate decision makers that the community is united, organized and serious about attracting economic growth and partnering with new employers. That is a powerful message, and one that will help separate a community in the intense competition for new investment and job creating opportunities.

Chad Sweeney is senior principal for Ginovus.

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