Dane Carlson can see economic potential for Hitchcock and for La Marque, he said. There’s space for manufacturers and support services for industries in Texas City and Galveston. There’s appeal in being close to the beach, and to Houston, and he thinks this is where people and where businesses want to move.
Now, it’s his job to sell that.
“I’m like Zillow,” Carlson, the county’s new director of economic development, said in an interview last week. “My job is to get eyeballs on the sites.”
The county hired Carlson in July for at an annual salary of about $100,000, but he started his job about three months ago. He reached his 100th day in his position just before Thanksgiving. His office in League City reflects his newness in the position, there are few personal effects on the wall or his desk.
Before he came on, the county’s economic development position had been vacant for more than a year after former director C.B. “Bix” Rathburn resigned in 2017.
Between the absence of a director, and the blow Hurricane Harvey delivered in August 2017, commercial development in the county has generally been slow, officials said.
In his first 100 days, Carlson has worked to reconnect the county with economic develop directors from local cities, so he can connect those directors with site selectors who are looking to expand their businesses somewhere in the Houston area, he said.
“My job is primarily attraction and recruitment,” Carlson said “If you of think of economic development like real estate sales, the businesses are the buyers, the communities are the sellers, and the economic development person in each of the local cities are the Realtors.”
To do that, he’s doing what companies like Zillow do: building an internet presence to get Galveston County on the radar of the companies looking to move. That means building a website and increasing the county’s presence in search engines.
That process won’t be fast, he said. It could take up to a year for the county to draw the attention of the site-selecting headhunters that are key to his plan, but he said he thought the county might be in line to declare some small successes.
He’s also doing the job without a staff, and with a limited budget of about $365,000, according to county budget documents. The county’s general fund totals about $247 million.
Carlson’s hiring was welcomed by local economic development officials, who said it’s always useful to have another set of eyes out looking for potential commercial opportunities.
“We need somebody from the county level working with us on projects and just helping promote Galveston County altogether,” said Sabrina Schwertner, the economic development director from Hitchcock. “It’s always good to have one person that can be out marketing all the county.”
Schwertner said she met with Carlson soon after he started his job, and was enthused that he seemed so optimistic about Hitchcock. The city is trying to attract manufacturing business, and has acres upon acres of land that can be developed, she said.
Galveston Assistant City Manager Rick Beverlin, who oversee economic development, compared Carlson’s position to the type of work that’s also done by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, which frequently sends out tips for economic development opportunities to cities or regions that might be interested.
The problem with that system is that the opportunities come in fast, and often expire just as quickly, meaning some small city economic development teams aren’t fully prepared to respond to them, Beverlin said.
Beverlin’s hope is that Carlson can funnel local leads to the city, he said.
“There will be leads that we may not otherwise find out about in time to be considered,” Beverlin said.
One thing not on the county’s agenda? Trying to attract more retail stores, which Carlson said isn’t the goal of his position, and doesn’t carry the same type of economic boost that a manufacturer might.
“People think that economic development is about retail,” he said. “It’s not retail. You want primary industries, those are industries where the money comes from outside. The goal is to improve the long-term economic stability of the people that live here.”
The county also is not in the game of offering incentives to businesses that would want to come to the county, he said. That is more the job of cities and their leaders when they’re connected with a business or site selector.
What Galveston County needs is to be more visible and to sell itself better, he said.
“It’s a county in transition,” he said. “Things are happening, things are moving.”