When I arrived at the Association as its general counsel in 2004, our board chair was Jan Schori, general manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. She was truly inspiring for me—a woman CEO at a large public power utility, very smart and able, but not afraid to poke fun at herself. During her farewell speech at the 2005 National Conference at the end of her term as chair, she jokingly donned a wedding veil because she had gotten married during her term! I remember thinking, “this is a group of people I will really enjoy working for—they are not afraid to have some fun.” Jan retired from SMUD, but now serves on the NERC Board of Trustees, so luckily, we in public power still get the advantage of her wisdom and skill.
When Jan was chair, her signature initiative was a campaign called “Public Power Is Good for Business.” It is as true now as it was then. We in public power have long been a vital part of supporting our communities. We are an integral part of the community and our successes are shared with our community members. When our communities thrive, so do we.
There are many measures that indicate a community’s success, such as low unemployment, growing revenue, thriving businesses, and adequate housing. These measures all impact each other, and all are nurtured by economic development.
When I visit members, I often get the chance to see how closely businesses are tied to the community. I recently visited Austin, Minnesota at the invitation of Mark Nibaur, general manager at Austin Utilities. I saw very quickly how big an economic force Hormel, which has its headquarters and a plant that makes its iconic Spam there, is within the city. Kelly Lady, Austin Utilities’ marketing and energy services manager, drove me by the plant, which is immense. She then accompanied me on a visit to the Spam Museum on Austin’s Main Street. Many members of Lady’s family have worked for the company and she was able to share lot of history and information as we went through the museum. Plus, the Hormel Institute of the University of Minnesota (funded by the Hormel Foundation) does cutting edge cancer research there. Hormel is clearly woven into the fabric of the city.
We all know that vying for new business customers is a fiercely competitive proposition. The Association just had a ringside seat for the announcement that Amazon is locating one of its HQ2 sites in Crystal City, Virginia — we were here before it was cool! How do we as public power utilities distinguish our communities? Low rates and high reliability (and increasingly, environmental responsibility) are important, but there is more.
As noted in the article on shared success, companies are increasingly interested in what the full community has to offer and want to be an integral part of the communities in which they set up shop. Corporate entities are now talking the talk of community involvement, but public power has been walking the walk for decades. Corporations are trying to brand themselves as having the advantages we have already long offered our communities.
From the revenue and services we contribute back to the city, to the relationships we maintain with the businesses and industries that drive our economy, and the advantages we offer to attract new business, public power is a critical piece of a community’s economic success.
We’re 2,000 strong, but having a public power utility is a special advantage for a community. A well-run public power utility can be a jewel in the crown of the community it serves. However, we haven’t always played up community ownership or taken full advantage of our position of influence to make sure that our business customers know we are aligned with our community’s vision.
Whether your utility has long served on economic development boards or you are considering how and where to step up your game, this issue of Public Power Magazine can offer some inspiration and guidance on how you can use this advantage to support your community’s vitality.
We have little to lose and much to gain by being active participants in economic development efforts. As Jan taught me, public power is good for business!