It was a gloomy, overcast day, hot and humid enough for me to look for my Aqua-Lung. But that did not deter the mad cyclists from coming to the morning meeting.
About 50 business, nonprofit and political leaders gathered to discuss the economic future of Columbia in terms of the community’s health. In fact, that was the theme of the meeting, “Making the Connection: Healthy Community/Healthy Economy.”
The discussion went further than the excess weight carried by Columbia citizens or the number of individual “smokestacks” standing at least 20 feet from doorways, puffing away.
I found it most encouraging to have Mayor Bob McDavid, former Mayor Darwin Hindman, state Rep. Mary Still and other officials join the community with the same goal in mind – bringing new businesses to Columbia. It looked like a cross-section of our community. Well, almost. More about that in a moment.
The general topic was the secondary reasons for a company to select a new location for its business. Initially, companies want to know about the costs of doing business, relationships with local and state governments and with regulatory bodies, as well as the available work force and more. In Stage II, companies examine quality of life factors: hospitals, outdoor activities and recreation, places of worship, schools, transportation and so much more.
We talked about the growth of high-tech and biotech businesses in the region. With the hiring process already started by IBM for up to 600 employees, the prospect of new hires at 3M and several new businesses locating their world headquarters in Columbia, as Hindman said, “We need to play to our strengths.” Columbia has.
High tech was the focus of the panel of experts: Mike Brooks, president of REDI, Jake Holiday of the Missouri Innovation Center (a business incubator for new high-tech business ventures), Don Stamper of the Central Missouri Development Council, Greg Steinhoff of Boone County National Bank and McDavid. For them and others, high technology equates to higher pay, younger employees and, hopefully, keeping more MU graduates in Columbia.
It was during the breakout sessions that the disparities started to become evident. Those in my group did not truly understand the class factions of white-collar and blue-collar workers in Columbia. Bank officials, business leaders and city management either do not or refuse to see the growing rift between the two labor groups.
One member of my breakout group blew off the problem by invoking Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down effect theory; that the increase in white-collar jobs will create a proportional number of “high paying” blue-collar positions. It will not, especially if the individual has no education beyond high school. For those individuals, jobs are less than few and far between. Read Sunday’s want ads.
Columbia has an outstanding education environment. What we really need are companies that are willing to provide work while encouraging employees to obtain their high school and associate's degree education, closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots. If we train for our future, it will bring new business to town.
Finally, a quick look showed the other disparity in the meeting. Of the approximately 50 attendees, only one was an American of African descent. Our Muslim and Latino communities seemed to be missing. If these meetings are not all-inclusive, truly representing Columbia, success will be limited, and we will not be able to say that Columbia is a healthy community.
Hindman is right. The city does need to look toward its strengths to build its economic health, and most companies are looking for unskilled and semi-skilled labor at the lowest price. However, is that really different from the retailers who pay their “associates” minimum wage plus two-bits and rarely 30 hours a week?
Mr. McDavid, Mr. Laird, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Steinhoff: The vision for this city must be all-inclusive, not partially inclusive. Local government must equally represent those of less affluence and those with means. Increased work means less crime, and less crime makes a happier Columbia. A happier Columbia is a healthier Columbia, and a healthy Columbia makes for a healthy economy.
David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. You can read more of David’s commentaries at InkandVoice.com and New York Journal of Books.