Ford Steers Frisco EDC Toward the FutureOct 01, 2021 ● By Lisa Ferguson
For Jason Ford, serving as president of the Frisco Economic Development Corporation is not a job – it’s a calling. “Making an impact in the community is the ultimate of what drives me every day in my job,” he says.
The importance of creating jobs and building businesses and industries within communities was something he experienced firsthand while growing up in New Orleans. He and his twin sister were the youngest of eight children in a family helmed by a single mother who for a time worked three jobs. Her experience is in part what inspired him to pursue a career in economic development.
“When I discovered that there was a career path that you could (use to) help people gain meaningful employment, to improve their skills, to get better-paying jobs while making the community a better place by attracting more jobs and wealth, to me it’s one of the ultimate areas of servant leadership and I just feel called to this vocation,” Mr. Ford says of his economic development career, which began in the mid-1990s.
He started as an intern at the Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Foundation in Mississippi and went on to become the chamber’s assistant executive director. In 2003, he joined the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce as its manager and was later promoted to director of business and economic development. Five years later, he was named CEO of Taylor EDC in Taylor, Texas, located northeast of Austin.
In 2012, Mr. Ford was appointed assistant director in the business expansion and retention group at Louisiana Economic Development where he spent two years before beginning in the role of vice president of regional economic development for the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s largest chamber of commerce.
He began at the Frisco EDC in 2019 as vice president, leading its business development team members who serve on the front lines assisting companies on site selection, business retention, expansion and recruitment efforts, as well as helping to grow Frisco’s “innovation ecosystem.”
Mr. Ford, who is also a member of the City of Frisco’s executive leadership team, was promoted to Frisco EDC president in June of this year after Ron Patterson returned to his previous role as a Frisco deputy city manager. He got a feel for the president’s position last year while taking on an increased leadership role after Mr. Patterson was tapped to coordinate the recovery planning team of city departments that worked to restart Frisco’s economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This afforded Mr. Ford “the opportunity to step up and lead within our organization and further build upon those relationships” with internal and external stakeholders, he explains. “So, the transition from vice president to president was easier because I had already had the opportunity to contribute toward many of those leadership capacities and responsibilities.”
Following Mr. Patterson’s return to the City Manager’s office, the decision was made to align the city’s development services and engineering departments as well as the EDC through that office. As a result, Mr. Ford as EDC president continues to report directly to Mr. Patterson.
Although he had aspired to eventually lead the Frisco EDC, Mr. Ford says the promotion “did happen sooner than I would have thought, but it was a welcome change because I felt so comfortable in the role.”
He is also comfortable calling the city home. “I love living in a bubble,” he says of working and residing in Frisco after decades spent commuting in other locales. He and his wife, Michelle, are parents of two teens who attend Frisco ISD schools. “I love that everything we want to enjoy as a family – entertainment, lifestyle, the housing … is right here.”
Those same elements, among other factors, help make Frisco a relatively easy sell to corporations and others who approach (or are approached by) the EDC about developing projects here.
“I believe there’s a buzz about Frisco that attracts a lot of projects and companies,” Mr. Ford says, adding that he thinks “Frisco is becoming one of the preeminent brands of cities among corporates and decision makers. But we still have a long way to go to really solidify that reputation beyond just the major signature projects we have today. As a result, we still receive many phone calls (asking) us, `Who is Frisco? What do you have to offer?’ So, there’s still a lot of work for us to do in that space.”
Although it may sound like an exaggeration, Mr. Ford says phones at the EDC office seemingly ring off the hook with calls daily from real estate brokers, site selectors, investors and others “all wanting to explore the opportunities for Frisco and their business.”
The EDC’s response? “We always tell people Frisco is a city of high expectations. It’s a city that values excellence, public safety, public health and we balance all of that with business continuity.”
The city, he explains, “offers a really special environment for businesses to be successful, whether it’s because of our tourism and hospitality industry and our capability for hosting really world-class events and business meetings, to having extraordinary athletic and sporting events.”
Finally, he says, “We have a very strong, robust organic innovation ecosystem that’s thriving with hundreds of startups and investors. We’re seeing venture capitalists move to Frisco and move their funds here. Few cities have that special recipe to make all of that happen, and it happens with great vision and a commitment to that vision via leadership over decades.”
Speaking of venture capitalists, Mr. Ford explains that the Frisco City Council “has set a very high and specific vision that Frisco will be the venture capital capitol of the center of the United States” by 2040.
To achieve that goal, he believes it will be important to create “connections between corporate innovators, the investors, the founders, the startups, the tech companies, the youth within our community” and find “ways that we can create more connective tissue to have a more comprehensively aligned innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in Frisco. That will strengthen us and help to grow a lot of jobs along the way while attracting more wealth and investment to our community.”
In early September, Mr. Ford said the EDC had 53 active “economic development prospects” in its pipeline, “which is 50 percent more than we had pre-pandemic. Most of those projects are (at) later stages in the site-selection process. Frisco is now on the short list for more than a dozen or so of those, so that in itself is a lot for us to do, but we’re excited to take on those challenges.”
Among the challenges it currently is facing is a shortage of “industrial flex-warehousing” space locally.
During the pandemic, the EDC announced about 10 projects that are projected to collectively absorb 685,000 square feet of real estate. “The key priority,” he says, “is trying to get more real estate on the books, and it takes time working with developers and planners to do that, but I feel like we’re doing it very expeditiously.”
Meanwhile, public-private partnerships such the one between the city, Frisco ISD and the Dallas Cowboys that birthed The Star in 2016, have been “a game-changer,” he says.
“We look at what (a) company wants to do as an organization and how we can bring in other organizations to help them solve those challenges and needs that may be unmet needs in the community while also helping the employees serve in those areas. The fact that we can move so quickly to establish the framework of public-private partnerships gives us credibility so that we can build more of these.”
Mr. Ford is quick to credit the entire Frisco EDC team for the successes that have been experienced so far.
“For as busy as we are, everyone is rolling up their sleeves, they’re making an impact, we’re putting big numbers on the board and we’re trying to be as responsive as possible to existing local employers while helping the city achieve its goals. … It’s a really fun time to be in Frisco and to be surrounded by such a wonderful team of people.”
Lisa Ferguson is managing editor of Frisco STYLE.