Sunday, February 13, 2005

Finding sweet deals for Solano County--Agency touts benefits of moving businesses to the area

By Matthew Bunk

FAIRFIELD - When Mike Ammann goes to business conventions, he loads his briefcase with candy wrapped in packaging that exclaims "Solano's Got It!" It's a way to hold the attention of people he meets while hobnobbing with the movers and shakers of industry - and candy is much more effective than a brochure or postcard, he said." I always offer them a sweet deal," Ammann, president of Solano Economic Development Corporation, said during an interview in his Green Valley office.

For Ammann, whose job is to bring startup or relocating businesses to Solano County, it's all about leaving an impression. So, as he walks the convention floors with company site selectors and corporate decision-makers, he lets them test some of Solano's homegrown products. Specifically, he gives them Jelly Belly beans and chocolate bars made in Fairfield candy factories.

But Ammann's job is much more than handing out sugar treats. The candy is just a way to break the ice before pitching the county as a great place to do business. Every year, Ammann teams up with other economic developers in the county's seven cities to visit cities across the country and the Bay Area. The idea is promotion, and the result, Ammann hopes, is a healthier local economy. "My job is to pull people together," he said. " And to make things happen that wouldn't have otherwise happened."

So Ammann does a lot of traveling. He also makes a lot of phone calls. And all of his efforts are geared toward convincing business leaders that they're missing out if they're not operating in Solano County. His first step is to find "leads," or people vaguely interested in the area, and then to cultivate those leads into "prospects," who are more serious about opening here. At any one conference, Ammann can line up hundreds of leads. If he's lucky, three or four of them will become prospects. "It's like panning for gold," he said. "You have to make sure you're standing in the right stream." You also have to know what to look for. And Ammann has specific goals, such as attracting biotech companies, light manufacturing, all types of office users and producers of specialty foods.

With a yearly budget of about $400,000 - about 60 percent comes from membership dues and 40 percent is paid by local government agencies - and a staff of three, Ammann makes Solano County an option for business leaders. Persistence and ingenuity are key, he said. "We're competing against organizations with much larger budgets," he said. "So we have to do more with less and choose what works best for us. "We believe in relationship marketing and using the Internet. We build those relationships and work the relationships, so when they have a decision to make we're right there."

Last year, Ammann helped reorganize the 20-year-old Solano EDC, which had been called SEDCORP. He built up the Web site, initiated an Internet-based property locator that provides easy access to information about every parcel in the county and formed a consortium of economic developers to promote the region at large conventions. That's the foundation. Now that it's been laid, Ammann has moved on to the next phase - taking the show on the road.

For the past six months, Solano EDC concentrated on national marketing. Now, the attention is turning to the Bay Area, which Ammann sees as Solano County's primary economic driver. Because Solano EDC can do the most for the county's businesses when on the road, some people in Solano County still regard the organization as an enigma. Other than an understanding that it promotes business, some folks simply don't know what people like Ammann do all day.

Robert Simpson, a Jelly Belly executive and member of the Solano EDC Board of Directors, offered his assurance that Ammann is worth his salary and then some. "Under the former administration, there was no clear direction. It kind of floundered," Simpson said. "But this area has a lot to offer, and Mike recognizes that. "I would say the influence of his community marketing is huge."

Another board member, Sue Vaccaro, of Solano Garbage Co., agrees. "It's an exciting time," she said. "Right now we're really charged up. "The most essential element, Vaccaro said, is cooperation with groups with similar economic interests. Instead of several disjointed efforts to market the area, it's all under one roof with Solano EDC. "If we get everyone to the table we have continuity," she said. "Then we can be smart about growth."

The board doesn't hesitate, from time to time, to let Ammann know where he should be focusing his energies. "I always tell people to tap me on the shoulder if I'm going the wrong direction," Ammann said. "Or tap me if they see an opportunity. "I expect a tap every now and then."

Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 267 or

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