Going global

Reno needs to attract a new kind of work force, Steve Forbes tells area economic leaders

In town last week to share a few pointers on economic development with Renoites was former presidential candidate Steve Forbes.

In town last week to share a few pointers on economic development with Renoites was former presidential candidate Steve Forbes.

Doing business is no longer a matter of regional influences or even national concerns. Just ask Steve Forbes.

“This is a global marketplace,” he says with fatherly conviction.

In Reno last week for a conference on economic development and a Republican fundraiser or two, the magazine mogul and former presidential candidate turned out to be an entertaining speaker—even if his message was predictable. Interspersing his comments with flat-tax dogma, he took jabs at terrorists and blamed the economic slowdown on Alan Greenspan. And, with his trademark smirk, he pointed out emphatically the global nature of our commercial landscape and the need for businesses to appeal to the global consumer.

He described the consumers of the coming years as people who have the world at their fingertips: “These kids have grown up with the Internet.”

This global message, and the implications thereof, seemed the most important of themes at Directions 2002, a forum hosted by the Reno-Sparks Chamber of Commerce and held at the Lawlor Events Center with Forbes as the headlining act.

I arrived at the events center to find just what I expected: about a thousand Republicans. Granted, there may have been a couple of Democrats in the room, but I was definitely the only Nader voter.

I felt like Mumia Abu Jamal in a room alone with Tom Ridge and a bunch of cops, and I expected at any minute to be exposed publicly as a leftist and removed forcefully from the premises.

The Directions 2002 lineup of speakers included only one person with any long-term ties to Reno, a Robert Wagner look-alike named Mister Rogers. Jim Rogers to be exact, who runs campgrounds. In fact, he’s the CEO of KOA (Kampgrounds of America).

Rogers was the only non-female speaker of the day who didn’t wear a tie. I liked him immediately. He gripped the podium like a warrior and belted out his speech in a loud baritone voice. Among other things, he pointed out the importance, in the campground business, of an attractive driveway. Rogers said that KOA guests often make judgments about a particular campground based on the appearance of its entrance.

Rogers had a larger point to make. He described Interstate 80 as the “driveway” of Reno, the road that connected it artery-style to its key tourist market, Northern California. “It’s horrendous!” he shouted, as he described the inadequate condition of I-80.

The criticism continued as he described Virginia Street during a recent holiday weekend. “Burned-out street signs! Burned-out logos! Burned-out lights on the Reno arch!” And that, he said, was on a weekend, when “everything should look its best.”

He offered a challenge to everyone in the room: “Take the walk!” down Virginia and Sierra streets from I-80 to the Truckee River. “Write your councilman a letter!” His voice boomed as he prompted everyone in the room to make a record of their observations and exercise some democracy.

(Later, I took Rogers’ challenge … or part of it, at least.

I walked down Sierra Street, and I didn’t find anything interesting until I got to First Street. I bought a latté at Java Jungle. Then I joined a small crowd of people waiting on the Riverwalk to see an independent movie at the Century Riverside 12.

After the movie, I went over to Esoteric and got another latté from the redheaded dude. Then I went into VSA arts of Nevada, bought a drawing, took it next door and got a fantastic deal on a beautiful frame at the Mayberry Gallery. I was having a great time.

I walked around the corner to see what the Brüka Theatre had in store. I couldn’t help but notice the huge crowd skating on the ice across the street. Then I waded up Virginia Street’s casino district through a corridor of gift shops and “burned-out logos.")

Another Directions 2002 speaker was a woman from Baltimore, Dr. Ioanna T. Morfessis, Ph.D., president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Alliance, a regional economic-development corporation. (See www.greaterbaltimore.org. It’s worth a look.)

Morfessis, who bears an uncanny resemblance to actress Linda Fiorentino, skillfully delivered a powerful warning of the need for cultural diversity and the threat posed to American business by the lack of replacements for our “silver-haired,” Baby Boomer workforce.

She said we face the immediate danger of “not having enough talent to meet the demand.” Study groups show, she insisted, that the key to attracting an “adequate supply of 15- to 34-year-olds” is a community that welcomes cultural diversity.

Well, just about any 15- to 34-year-old could have told you that. Like me. And I don’t charge a lecture fee, so what follows is free:

The global workforce is as diverse as the name implies, and that workforce wants to feel welcomed. These individuals can develop products and services that are palatable to global consumers, and, with the help of their rich cultural diversity, they can successfully market those products across the demographic spectrum.

They’re young and intelligent. They enjoy Reno and all the outdoor activities it has to offer. But they’re also African American and Indigenous American. They’re Buddhist and they’re Muslim. They’re Cuban and Filipino and Jewish. They belong to MENSA. They’re homosexual.

They want sashimi and bookstores, independent films and clean air. They want to eat falafel and drink maté. They want cantinas and coffee shops. They want public transportation that is safe and clean. They want to dance all night and work all day.

They want Reno to be successful in this global marketplace, and they want to be the workforce that makes that happen. They’re the global workforce, and they’re looking for a community that welcomes their diverse lifestyles.

How’s that, Ms. Morfessis?

According to the experts at Directions 2002, Reno already has what it takes to position itself as an emerging hot spot in the new economy. But, as Forbes said, “Now is not the time to sit on your laurels. Now is the time to ramp up!”

Reno’s economic diversification measures of the last two decades have paid off. In the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy, while the rest of the country struggled with layoffs, Reno’s employment figures barely changed. (In October, unemployment in the area was 3.7 percent. In early September, it was 3.6 percent. Read the recent Wall Street Journal article about Reno at www.edawn.org.)

But that doesn’t mean that we can get complacent.

The message of the day at Directions 2002 was that the global economy is here, and now is the time for cultural diversification. Thoughtful maintenance of the improvements that are already in place will allow our region to continue becoming more attractive to the consumers and employees who will ensure economic success in the decades to come.