During his five weeks on the job, Russell Seymour’s office at the Mason Enterprise Center has all the markings of a just-moved-in appearance. But he pulls out a large black binder to prove that he has brought the best of his past experience with him to Leesburg.
It’s full of plastic sheets of business cards, from site selection companies, businesses, developers and more, who he’s interacted with over the years.
“I have three of these,” he said of the binders.
Not much dust has collected on the binders over the years, as he’s constantly flipping through the pages to see who he hasn’t touched base with recently and, now, who he can tell about Leesburg.
“I’ve started to do some of that,” he said this week. “There’ll be a lot more of that. It’s part of what we do … these are the things to make sure we’re consistently doing the outreach. I don’t want people to ever say we haven’t heard about Leesburg.”
As he’s settling in to his new office, as well as his new Leesburg home, he’s leaned on outgoing department director Marantha Edwards to help him make connections in the community and bring him up to speed on the current economic development efforts in town. He’s also acquired a library of studies past and present, all with their own suggestions on what should be done to make the town a better place to live, work, play, and own a business.
Seymour had made it clear before he started his new gig that he was a face-to-face guy, who preferred in-person meetings with businesses and others in the community to email or phone calls.
“One of the first things I tell them is ‘I’m here to listen, let’s start the conversation. Whether you’ve had a wonderful experience or an experience we need to work on we’re starting a new page here’,” he said.
That “new page” will have some overlap from his predecessor Edwards, and borrow on the expertise shared in all the studies on the town’s economic development efforts over the years. Seymour is frank about towing the line between coming in with a fresh perspective and undoing some of the positive work that has occurred, or is currently underway. He said both Edwards and Town Manager Kaj Dentler have been open with Seymour about wanting him to form his own opinions about the town’s economic development environment, rather than filling his head with preconceived notions.
“Do I have a new vision after five weeks? No. That would go against everything I said … about preconceived notions,” he said. “There’s no cookie-cutter approach [to economic development]. To come in to do that would be a disservice to this community.”
An initial priority for Seymour has been preparing for the upcoming budget season, with Dentler expected to present the biannual budget at the end of February. Seymour noted he already has “four file folders full” of budget-related information. Making sure his goals and priorities are set as the head of the town’s economic development efforts is paramount before making any new requests, he said.
“This year, we’re really looking at are there any significant changes we need to make for where we want to be for the next budget cycle. And, in looking at where we’re at, seeing if there’s anything on a smaller scale we need to tweak to meet some of the new goals. I’m also working on establishing new goals now,” he said. “One of the things that’s important is that you set goals and priorities before you start committing resources to it, rather than constantly trying to shape your goals to the resources you have. You don’t want to exceed or under-cut your resources.”
The Economic Development Department has long had the reputation of doing more with less, owing to its small staff and modest budget. Once Edwards leaves her post Dec. 22, Seymour will be the sole member of the department. But Seymour said he will rely on the “team” around him—that includes both Leesburg’s senior staff members and department heads, members of the business community.
“One of the things that really struck me during the interview process and even up until [now] is this idea of a team. That is so rare,” he said. “We had a discussion about where we strategically want to be. You really have to be on the outside and come into a situation like Leesburg where you see this team. We’re a small group but from what I’ve seen with the people I’ve met with so far, I’d put their capabilities up against anybody.”
The idea of “team” comes up consistently when Seymour speaks—both in what he as department director and the greater town can accomplish.
“Team is a big word for me,” he said.
Ensuring that the town makes itself an attractive place to launch or relocate a business is paramount, he said, but of equal importance is retaining existing businesses, which can be another locality’s target.
Seymour points to the resurgence of the downtown area in particular, and the growth surrounding it. Gone are the days where town residents had to leave Leesburg’s corporate limits for shopping, dining or recreational opportunities, as many have cropped up in town in recent years. Now, he says, the goal is to ensure that more and more residents don’t have to leave town for high-quality, well-paying jobs. Both the downtown and Leesburg’s high quality of life can be held up as assets for corporations looking to locate in the county seat, he said.
“One of the things that’s really important for economic development is you want to provide local jobs. Retail, services are critical but that’s not the only part of economic development. It can’t be. You have to provide local jobs,” he said. “So, when you look at your local residents, [you look at] where do [they] have to go to work. If they can’t work locally, we have to figure out where they’re going to look for those types of jobs, and see if can we get those types of jobs here. If we can take quality of life a step further, they then can go to lunch locally, shop locally more, it’s a boom for retail and service-based businesses. There’s that ripple effect.”