Columbia's economic development aims at growing existing businesses

Saturday, June 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 2:30 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 7, 2009

LAKE OF THE OZARKS — Increasing exports, filling the position of business ombudsman and playing a larger role in local job training were all goals outlined by City Manager Bill Watkins in a presentation on Columbia’s economic development.

The whole idea of economic development, Watkins said, is to sell things made in the community to other places in order to bring money in. Building another Walmart isn’t economic development, he said.

Watkins’ Saturday-afternoon talk at the City Council’s annual retreat followed his appointment of J. Mike Brooks as the city’s new economic development manager last week. Brooks will be the new head of Regional Economic Development Inc., replacing Bernie Andrews, who will stay with the organization as vice president.

The group’s increased staff could help it play a larger role in coordination among the city, the Chamber of Commerce and MU, a goal Watkins sees as paramount to developing Columbia’s economy.

“We don’t have, I think, a strong coordinator, and REDI’s got to regain that position as quarterback for economic development,” he said.

During the discussion, Watkins revealed that Columbia, despite making it to the final list, was not chosen by the Sara Lee Corporation as the location for its new plant. That would have amounted to about a $150 million investment in the community, but Columbia missed out because it did not have a site prepared, Watkins said.

Attracting large businesses to build plants is a tough feat because there are fewer and fewer “big fish” out there, Watkins said. Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala likened such efforts to playing the lottery.

According to Mayor Darwin Hindman, focusing on growing the city’s existing businesses may be a better investment.

“The first thing you do in economic development is take care of what you got,” Hindman said.

To help existing businesses grow and navigate the city’s processes, Watkins hopes to hire a business ombudsman. He outlined the idea in his State of the City address last summer, but the position was never filled because of a tight budget. The ombudsman would be the primary city contact for businesses and help them through procedures such as obtaining building permits.

The goal of such a position would be to keep businesses here, Watkins said. He described the position as a “communication expert oriented to business.”

The position is something First Ward Councilman Paul Sturtz said he is particularly excited about. With the number of constituent complaints that council members receive, an ombudsman could facilitate coordination among city departments that would reduce some cynicism citizens have about local government, he said.

“Being able to answer complaints promptly really brings more confidence in city government,” Sturtz said.

Growing businesses locally is an initiative already underway in conjunction with MU. The business incubators at Discovery Ridge and the University’s research reactor have a number of businesses leasing space. The hope is to harness technology from MU to create viable businesses. But Watkins said the economic development focus can’t only be on science- and technology-oriented jobs.

“Not everybody is going to have an interest in working in science and technology jobs,” he said. “We have to provide good opportunities for those people.”

Watkins’ presentation detailed the attractions Columbia has to manufacturing employers, such as its proximity to the highway and its abundance of skilled labor. But there’s only a one in 10,000 chance that a community can lure a relocating, large manufacturing business, he said. Plus, there’s no longer the national "buzz" around Columbia there was a few years ago. However, just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean the city shouldn’t still try to attract new manufacturing plants, Watkins said.

Most jobs gained or lost are from existing plants’ expansions or contractions, according to Watkins' report. Thus, the discussion focused on growing Columbia’s existing businesses. Watkins stressed the need to foster businesses that produce unique goods and sell them outside of the community. More retail is not necessarily the development he has in mind.

“Somebody that starts up a store selling widgets when we already have 18 widget stores isn’t selling anything new,” he said. “That may be entrepreneurship, but it’s not economic development.”

Watkins also said the city should take a more active role in local job training and developing shovel-ready sites. But even right now, Columbia is still a good place to do business, he said.

“I get a little pissed off sometimes when I hear people say we’re not a business-friendly city,” Watkins said. “Who’s got the first state-certified site? Who’s working on three more shovel-ready sites? Who was ranked No. 5 by Forbes on their 2009 ‘Best Place to do Business'?”


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