Disaster Preparedness • Economic Recovery • Resilience

Allison Larsen, IEDC Volunteer, Makes Strategizing Pay Off for Rockport/Fulton Texas

Allison Larsen is a woman who values a good strategy.

As an IEDC volunteer to the Texas Gulf Coast following Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, Larsen traveled to Rockport, Texas, to work with the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce and its CEO, Diane Probst. Together they pursued action planning with local government officials and downtown business owners.
Larsen journeyed to Texas from the Phoenix, Arizona, area where she is the Principal at TadZo, a well-known economic development consulting firm. Arriving in Rockport last December, she was taken aback by the devastation to city. The city, part of rural Aransas county, Texas, is joined to its north by the adjacent town of Fulton, and together the population of the two cities totals about 10,000 people. Rockport/Fulton lies on a peninsula that juts into the Copano and Aransas Bay, just north of Corpus Christi. “Pretty much everything was flattened after this Category 4 hurricane hung around,” she said. “With Harvey in Rockport and Fulton, it was not so much the flooding as the severe wind.”

“Obviously you have to get beyond the debris,” she noted, observing that the county suffered losses well in excess of $100 million. “But what is really important is to have a clear plan, a strategy,” she said. “If you don’t have a plan, it’s hard for agencies to help. You need to clearly determine what is your ask.”
Her approach involved, first, careful listening, and getting input from as many stakeholders as possible. This involved understanding Rockport/Fulton’s priorities in terms of its businesses, and how to get them back up and running.

“They were really about tourism, not a lot of primary industry,” Larsen said, “which means that these businesses were extremely dependent on seasons, so time was of the essence.” As a traditional chamber of commerce, the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce excelled, and was increasingly involved in economic development. “But I realized that perhaps it needed to expand what it was doing.”

Above all, Larsen strove to understand Rockport’s long-term challenges. “When an economy is almost exclusively about tourism you lack many of the fundamentals to diversify. Also you don’t do a lot of advance planning. It becomes difficult to recognize that the world has changed,” she said.

In addition to underscoring the importance of getting input, consolidating the information obtained, and analyzing it, Larsen repeatedly insists on the power of optimism. “You have to be able to uplift people, to energize them,” she said.

But there were other hurdles to surmount as well, she notes. “It was a struggle just to open businesses after the storm. Workers wanted to come back but there was nowhere for them to live. Housing became more important than ever. There was a huge demand for skilled labor.”

In shaping a process, Larsen is a big believer in the power of striving forward via a series of small goals, rather than exclusively focusing on large ones, “We needed to have short-term wins.” Those goals included carefully documenting action steps, inviting people to develop the steps and their involvement, determining what resources to tap, and a setting specific timeline.

But the process that the cities moved through, as she saw it, had not only to do with meticulous planning, but also with helping Rockport/Fulton overcome their trauma. “The business community really needed to work through its emotions so it could get past the hurricane; a big part of my job was carefully listening to what the true challenges were, and helping people vent.”

Larsen said that a turning point was reached when the wreckage was finally removed. “It was a Spring cleaning moment, and it helped the city move on.”
Rockport/Fulton’s next steps were holding a series of workshops, leading to the development of an ambitious planning document entitled a “Comprehensive Economic Development Strategic Action Plan.” This action plan included, first, several immediate-term action plans focused on getting back to business with Tourism, Downtowns, and Business Outreach. The Comprehensive Economic Development Strategic Action Plan came together after those involved in the immediate-term work gained momentum to take on bigger goals involving an assessment of resources, a “community asset inventory,’” and then identification of the wide array of partners in the redevelopment effort. Out of this process, participants were able to create a unified master plan to redevelop the downtown and waterfront areas, support existing small and medium-sized businesses, and bring new businesses to the area. As Larsen saw it, development of the workforce, housing, healthcare, and transportation were also crucial to this effort.

Larsen characterizes herself as an “unconventional engagement catalyst.” An unconventional approach that the community took on for recovery was Voluntourism, a version of tourism that brings together peoples’ vacations and their volunteering for a cause. Typical Voluntourists, a bit like Larsen herself, become adept in listening to those affected by a disaster, and then finding creative ways to help the survivors regain self-sufficiency.

Another notion that Larsen stresses is recognizing and cherishing those aspects of a place that are highly valuable, but tend to be taken for granted. Larsen constantly reminded the towns’ business people of the importance of their yearly special events cultivated over a long period of time, targeted at culturally sophisticated tourists who enjoy a warm climate year around, Southern hospitality, and a beautiful seashore. Those events include a yearly film festival, and a sea-themed gathering called Sea Fair. In a presentation given in early January in Rockport, she observed: “There is no doubt you have natural assets, Harvey didn’t take that away from you.”

On the ground in Rockport/Fulton, there is high praise for Larsen. “We were taken aback by Allison’s spirit of always wanting to help, of being attentive to what we are about rather than having a predetermined agenda, of being unconventional when necessary, and being extremely careful and detail-oriented in devising solutions,” said Probst.

Larsen certainly has had a varied and unconventional background for an economic development professional.

She grew up in a small rural community in Northern California of less than 4,000 people. She graduated from the University of California at Davis with a B.S. in Agricultural Education in 1991, financing her college education in part by raising a flock of sheep. After college, she was a sales representative at Merck & Co. for four years, covering territories in California and Oregon for crop protection products. Her work there earned her national recognition as a “League of Excellence” winner in sales.

Her first economic development position was in Central California as Manager of Business Development and Marketing at the Madera Industrial Development Authority, where between 1997 and 1999, she put together competitive proposals, and partnered with regional organizations, attracting 2,500 new jobs. Her skills caught the attention of Richard Machado, then head of the Economic Development Corp. of Fresno, Calif. Machado brought her on in 1999, where she soon became President and CEO. Moving back into the private sector in 2002, Larsen helped manage two economic development firms, Chabin Concepts Inc. and Competitive Ready. Since 2013, she has been Principal at TadZo, based in Phoenix-area Buckeye, Ariz.

Larsen, currently an IEDC Board Member, is also one of the organization’s earliest volunteers, She has earned the Certified Economic Developer (CEcD) designation. Larsen describes her current professional role at TadZo as part of her “third career.”

Larsen is an avid hiker, and has even climbed the demanding Half Dome in Yosemite. She clearly enjoys challenges, particularly uphill ones.