BLUEFIELD — Bluefield is at the epicenter of progress in the region, with the city’s Jim Spencer at its heart.
Spencer is Bluefield’s director of community and economic development, joining the city in 2015 for the new position, created by former Mayor Tom Cole.
Cole’s vision, a progressive board and city manager, and Spencer’s experience and work ethic have paid off.
Spencer said Cole asked him to take the position after he retired as Tazewell County Administrator and one of the first things on the agenda was to “stop the bleeding of losing businesses” and develop a plan to grow and attract new businesses.
The basic mission was accomplished, but that was only the beginning of what has been described as the “rebirth of Bluefield.”
Since Spencer’s arrival, many projects are proceeding, with the March 2019 announcement of information technology giant Intuit creating a Prosperity Hub in downtown Bluefield and bringing an eventual 500 jobs providing a massive boost.
“The sun is bright in Bluefield,” Spencer said of that time. “On that day, hope came back to Bluefield…”
The Intuit/Alorica story has been well documented, with about 250 employees already on board working remotely because of the pandemic. They will move into the Prosperity Hub (the former Summit Bank building on Federal Street) when it opens after undergoing renovations.
With all of the work Spencer did behind the scenes to help bring Intuit to the city, he has also devoted energy and expertise to many other areas of economic development, including securing more than $2 million in grant money for the Commercialization Station manufacturing incubator on Bluefield Avenue.
That facility has five large bays from 8,000 to 10,000 square feet with all of them filled and a “makers space’ for entrepreneurs also located in the facility.
Another manufacturing start-up businesses is slated to open in another part of the building soon.
Spencer has also been instrumental in the project at I-77 Exit 1 to develop 12 to 15 “shovel ready” pads on land the city owns to bring businesses to that exit, which has never been developed before.
“I am hoping work should start soon on that project,” he said, with all of the preliminary work about completed for the more than $2 million initiative.
Spencer worked to obtain a federal “Opportunity Zone” designation for the area, which offers tax incentives for investors. He also has organized classes teaching potential investors and property owners in the zone how to utilize the designation.
Another large project he is working on is bringing a Thoroughbred Bulk Terminal facility to Bluefield that will serve as a hub to take advantage of the Norfolk Southern Railroad corridor and the proximity of Interstates 77, 64 and 81. The facility will allow customers to transfer a large array of commodities between rail cars and trucks.
A Demand Study is now under way for the project, which is called “Game Changer.”
The city is also soon welcoming the Bluestone Health Center in the Hawley Building, bringing a federally qualified health center to downtown Bluefield.
To make room for the growth downtown, and the anticipated continuance of that growth, the city has also increased parking spaces by creating new parking areas and changing traffic patterns.
But it’s not all about the big projects. It’s also about helping entrepreneurs get off the ground and small businesses expand.
Spencer has offered programs that bring in experts to teach the fundamentals of how to start a business, how to best use social media to promote businesses and how to use resources.
“Those programs were part of the ‘secret sauce’ that Intuit liked about what we are doing in Bluefield,” he said, referring to Intuit’s emphasis on innovation and training entrepreneurs.
In 2019, the city also created the Bluefield Economic Development Authority (BEDA) to handle property without the state restrictions placed on cities as well as spearhead the Intuit/Alorica project and work as a catalyst to continue developing Intuit’s partnership to ensure sustainability.
Operating out of the Small Business Success Center, BEDA can apply for grants and has also taken on the role of ensuring growth opportunities, development and mentorship to the region’s business owners and entrepreneurs.
Between January and March 2020, BEDA hosted 13 training sessions which included: “Websites 101,” “Going into Business: First Steps,” “Instagram: Hashtags and Photos,” “Time Management,” and more. These 13 sessions had 200-plus people in attendance, Spencer said.
BEDA has also partnered with the My Own Business Institute (MOBI) at Santa Clara University, the world’s leading provider of free online education for entrepreneurs.
A Small Business Saturday program was also started.
It’s all part of Spencer’s “three-pronged approach” to economic development: support existing business and industry by helping them diversify and grow through a Business Retention and Expansion Program (BR&E); cultivate entrepreneurship and Innovation; and attract new industry, especially in the “TEAM” sectors: Technology, Energy, and Advanced Manufacturing.
“That is the basis of everything we do on a daily basis,” he said. “Every program we offer falls into one of those three categories.”
Spencer said his staff, Savannah Carabin and Faith Blackwell, and members of the BEDA board, including Cole, former State Sen. Bill Cole and Mayor Ron Martin, focus squarely on economic development.
“Every day we are trying to advance the ball for the City of Bluefield,” he said. “I learned a long time ago, if you don’t tell your story, somebody else will and you probably won’t like how they tell it.”
Spencer, who graduated from Bluefield State College with a degree in civil engineering, said compared to being a county administrator and head of a public service authority (a former job in Tazewell County), “economic development is the hardest one.”
A former athlete, he said he loves the competitiveness of the profession.
“That is my passion now,” he said, but it is working with the “next generation of entrepreneurs” that he values most.
In a recent podcast with Chad Chancellor, co-founder of The Next Move Group, a national organization that supports local governments on economic development projects, Spencer said one of the most rewarding parts of economic development is working with young people.
“It leaves a legacy of impacting lives,” he said of the experience. “One of the best things we can give people is the opportunity to succeed. We need leaders stepping up in communities. We need young people who want to help communities.”
Chancellor said he is impressed with what Bluefield is doing and is also happy to spread the word that anyone who needs to call about QuickBooks or Mint, two of Intuit’s online products, may actually talk to someone in Bluefield.
As successful as Spencer has been, he is not one to give himself credit and is quick to point out others who pave the way for him to do his job.
“Leadership starts at the top,” he said of city and business leaders. “I commend the city board and the BEDA board for their vision in moving the city forward.”
Martin said the city is fortunate to have Spencer and his staff.
“In Jim Spencer, together with his team, Savannah Carabin and Faith Blackwell, Bluefield is blessed with the most proactive and forward-thinking economic development team in the region,” he said. “Jim created the conditions that attracted Intuit to our city – a business friendly, growth oriented, progressive climate.”
Martin said that, due to those efforts, Bluefield was selected for Intuit’s latest Prosperity Hub, beating out over 900 other candidate cities.
“Jim continues to think creatively to move the city forward – he is directing the development of the city’s property at Exit 1, where we are working to develop a site attractive to a diverse array of businesses so we can jump start growth in that area,” he said. “Jim is also working with E.L. Robinson Engineering on the demand study to determine the feasibility of a bulk transfer facility along the rail corridor that runs through Bluefield. The city is extremely fortunate to have Jim, Savannah and Faith working for us and helping us move forward.”
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