Who’s Who: Ayako Schuster 

Ayako Schuster
Director, Economic Development

Can you tell me a bit about yourself? Where are you from originally? Do you have family in town?  

I was born and raised in Japan, but came to the US in 1998 to get my Master’s in Applied Economics at University of North Texas. Six months before finishing my degree, I got an internship at the Garland Chamber as an Economic Development Intern, which turned into working with them for over 15 years. I learned so much from the Chamber and we’re still like family. In 2015, I joined the City of Garland in their Economic Development department.

I’m married to an Austrian man and our children have passports to like 4 countries! We joke they could easily work for the C.I.A.

Can you tell me a bit about your role?  

My job is to help increase the tax value and improve the quality of life of the city by creating a favorable environment for businesses. Garland is a mature city, which means we are built out. Unlike other cities, we don’t have much greenfield land left. So our focus is on reimagining, repurposing and redeveloping. We strive to find the right stakeholders to revitalize the buildings we have, work to create synergy between businesses, developers, different City departments, and others.

How would you describe the economic development process? 

Economic Development can start when a developer, investor, property owner, or broker reaches out to the Mayor’s office, Dallas Regional Chamber, or directly calls us. It’s a conversation between all private stakeholders, focused on finding ways to maximize their investments.

Of course there are traditional incentive tools, but sometimes these financial incentives aren’t what’s needed. Sometimes it’s facilitating connection to the right organizations or helping with the permitting process. For example, a new business that had just come to Garland, and they reached out to us. After visiting them on site, it turned out that their workforce is 80% Vietnamese. So, one way we supported them was by connecting them to representatives in the Vietnamese community here, for the company to recruit and just be more engaged.

How do you define success? 

Our ultimate goal is to increase long-term tax value to the city by bringing quality developments that are sustainable. We also want to enhance the quality of life, whether that’s by improving amenities, bringing quality retail or just expanding walking trails.

Traditionally, the metrics of success would be how much you increase the tax base and number of jobs, but these days it’s tricky because everyone’s needs and preferences are so different. Some residents want trails, others want a Whole Foods or a nice house and good schools. It’s also challenging because not all initiatives are quantifiable, such as beautification projects, but they are really important for an improved quality of life. So what we aim for ultimately is a holistic vision of success.

What attracted you to this field? 

Since I was a little girl growing up in Japan, like kindergarten or first grade, I always wanted to help people. I was never interested in working in the private sector. It was also always my dream to work in the U.S. I grew up watching “Little House on the Prairie” dubbed in Japanese. I loved everything about the show: the family values, the pioneer spirit, seeing people facing and overcoming challenges. People helped each other out, and that was my inspiration. That was America for me. In middle school, I decorated my room with massive American flags. Everything had the American flag on it.

Of course as an adult, I have a deeper appreciation for my upbringing, my culture and my home. My children speak Japanese and go to a Japanese school. I also have a deep appreciation for the opportunity I’ve found in Garland. When I came, I didn’t even know what Garland ISD was, for instance. Now I get to be someone recruiting and supporting businesses here. I really appreciate the opportunity the city has given me.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face? 

Our biggest challenge right now is that we don’t have space. Some folks in the manufacturing industry are looking for 100K-200K square feet buildings. However our industrial vacancy rate is less than 2%, which means pretty much everything is taken. Retail is at 95% occupancy. It’s a good and bad challenge to have.

Our unemployment rate is also very low, under 3%. Again, that’s good for the City, but challenging for employers, since most people have a job already and there aren’t many to hire. I think the opportunity here is to think about ways to attract companies that are looking to use automation to solve these labor challenges. We are also exploring denser developments, as that would help expand Garland’s population and workforce.

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How do you work with small businesses? 

It depends on what their needs are. A lot of times, smaller businesses need help with business processes or knowing where to start when opening a business; it’s very hands-on. With mid-size companies, they are more familiar with development, and they know where to go. They might need more support however with the Council or doing neighborhood outreach. Regardless of who we’re working with, if we don’t have the answer right away, we’ll go find it. We coordinate a lot with the Chamber.

With larger companies, of course, we have our traditional incentive packages like tax or fee rebates. But again, every project has different needs, so a cookie cutter approach doesn’t always work. We try to look at all the tools on the table, like grants, collaboration with other city departments, or facilitating strategic connections. We like to talk with a company first to really figure out what their needs are and what kinds of tools can be sustainable for the long-haul.

For incentive programs in manufacturing, we always try to make sure the investment payback on those will be within five years. We realize developers often can’t afford the full cost of development, so we try to share the risk of these gaps if we feel we’ll get a good return on that investment.

What advice would you give small businesses that you work with? 

Don’t be intimidated, and please reach out. I’m happy to go through the project and talk about your needs. Let us talk about your goals and our community vision, and help find the solution that fits.

Enjoy doing outside of work in Garland

I’m not really an exercise person but I love being outdoors, and Garland has a lot of trails and parks that we enjoy exploring. I also recommend that everyone find a hole-in-the-wall mom and pop restaurant. We have so many international restaurants (hidden gems) here in Garland that you should definitely try out.

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