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City looks to bring new businesses to town, make plans for land preservation

Wednesday, June 11, 2008 | 5:44 p.m. CDT; updated 9:53 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

COLUMBIA — The city is looking at ways to entice businesses to Columbia, but implementation of plans to develop land are going to have to wait until after the City Council figures out what it needs to do with land preservation issues.

Regional Economic Development Inc., a city organization that tries to bring jobs into Columbia, suggested in a report submitted to the council that the city make available shovel-ready land in order to entice companies to come to the area. Shovel-readiness includes things such as having water and sewage connections, having appropriate topography and being available for sale at a competitive price.

REDI President Bernie Andrews said the cost for engineering, architectural and environmental studies at a site would generally be less than $100,000. He said the cost to make a site shovel-ready would vary greatly depending on the site.

The report lists businesses that either decided to come to Columbia or decided not to and why.

Other problems listed in the report include that the city doesn’t have any 20-50 acre sites and high land prices.

First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz said before sites can be made shovel-ready, the city needs to preserve other land with special natural features. Then the land left can be evaluated to see what can be used for industry and business.

“I’m not in favor of just willy-nilly putting in industrial parks,” Sturtz said. “It needs to be strategic how we put those into being.”

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said the city, along with MU, is working on a natural resources inventory that will provide information about what is on which land in Columbia, including things such as slope, open land and what kinds of forests are where. This report is scheduled to be finished in October.

Skala said in the fall, the council will begin working on a comprehensive plan for land use in Columbia.

Andrews said the organization will work closely with the city to abide by any guidelines and ordinances.

One of the recommendations in the report is to continue the efforts of the non-profit organization Columbia Area Jobs Foundation in developing shovel-ready sites.

Another way the city is looking at expanding business is a partnership with MU.

City Manager Bill Watkins also said in his State of the City address last week that Columbia should restructure REDI to include closer ties with MU, a plan Sturtz called “ambitious.”

“I propose re-directing and increasing the city’s financial support for targeted economic development activity and taking a greater leadership role to bring new jobs to the region,” Watkins said in the address.

He suggested the organization re-direct its efforts from “emphasizing traditional business development” to closer ties with MU.

“The idea is that we would work closer with the university in terms of marketing the assets and strengths of the university,” Andrews said.

Andrews also said no restructuring plan has been determined, but that REDI is now working with MU on economic development by going with representatives from the university to two science-related conferences to market Columbia to potential business interests.

MU Provost Brian Foster said MU already works toward economic development in the city.

“There is constant communication and collaboration,” he said.

For example, MU is building a life science incubator, which would support MU-affiliated small businesses in the early stages of development. MU also has the Discovery Ridge research facility where firms can collaborate with MU.

Foster also pointed out that the city and MU have a sort of symbiotic relationship. Among other things, he said MU trains the potential work force for Columbia, which in turn shapes the economic development prospects of the city.

Skala said he supports a restructuring for REDI and that it makes more economic sense to spend more resources retaining and growing businesses than attracting them from elsewhere.

“Bill is absolutely on track,” Skala said, “To invest in a lot of resources chasing after the big one, so to speak, is like playing the lottery.”


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