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Columbia Missourian

Columbia businessman Dave Griggs' civic life: 'It's called relationships'

By Richard Webner
February 10, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

The REDI chairman used his personal charm and worked with political leaders to sell IBM on bringing hundreds of jobs to Boone County. Tax breaks were central to the deal. With a plan to establish an enhanced enterprise zone in much of Columbia, Griggs says he was only trying to find incentives to attract smaller businesses. The EEZ would have required blight declarations in numerous neighborhoods, ultimately dividing city residents.

REDI Chairman Dave Griggs has been involved in Columbia's civic life since the 1980s, when he pushed for construction of a new Boone County Jail.

COLUMBIA — The contrast between the two businessmen was striking. Dave Griggs was portly, with round, rosy cheeks, while Carl Bouckaert had streamlined features, with pencil-thin limbs, a precise part in his hair and a pointy nose and chin.

Griggs wore a brown sport coat; Bouckaert, orange slacks and a yellow sweater so bright they seemed fluorescent in the sunlight streaming through the windows. Griggs spoke with a slight country twang, while Bouckaert, who grew up in Belgium, had a French accent.

Both men had charisma and abundant energy. Bouckaert, the owner of a large carpet manufacturer, had come to Griggs' store to sell him rolls of carpet, but they did little negotiating. Instead, they spent nearly an hour engrossed in casual conversation.

After telling Bouckaert of his frequent attendance at Missouri Tiger basketball games, Griggs began a lecture on the glory of MU and Columbia’s other perks. He asked his secretary to bring copies of Relocating in Columbia magazine, which had published a list of his 10 favorite things about Columbia. Bouckaert asked lots of questions and took notes in tiny, precise script, using a pen decorated with the Stars and Stripes.

The subject changed to the two men’s careers. They exchanged business philosophies, with Griggs explaining that he tries to stay between the cutting edge and the "bleeding edge" of the flooring industry. Their voices became serious as they discussed how they and other businesses have fared in the recession.

During their chat, Griggs and Bouckaert leaned closer to each other over the granite table littered with iPhones, iPads and business cards. They maintained constant smiles and firm eye contact and often grasped each other's arms.

“So, we just sold 10 rolls,” Bouckaert said at the end of the conversation, smiling at Griggs and clenching his arm.

“Don’t be too optimistic, but I think you might have,” Griggs said, his hand on Bouckaert’s shoulder.

Griggs and Bouckaert ended the meeting by crowding around a Missourian reporter and offering advice.

“It's all about people,” Bouckaert said. “Remember that. It's all about people.”

“It’s called relationships,” Griggs said.

As chairman of Regional Economic Development Inc., Griggs changed the relationship between business and government in Columbia. He has been instrumental in setting the policy of offering tax incentives to businesses to bring them to town.

Griggs defends incentives as a means of strengthening the local economy and creating jobs. The policy has a downside, however: It takes millions of dollars from the public coffers in the form of lost tax revenue and other payments to benefit businesses. 

Opponents say incentives help business at the expense of the public. Their argument gained force in 2012, when REDI introduced a new incentive policy: enhanced enterprise zones, or EEZs. For EEZs to be used, portions of Columbia would have to be declared blighted, which set off fears of eminent domain and lowered property values, as well as damaged pride. Eventually, REDI pulled the plug on EEZs, but it continues to search for new incentives.

During the debate over EEZs, Griggs' character came into question. Many residents are wary of the businessman's influence and his extensive political contacts. They wonder if he has used his forceful personality to turn the city government's agenda into a business agenda.

Neighbors 'dependent on neighbors'

Dave Griggs stands in October in front of a field where he tried to grow Miscanthus giganteus, which scientists hope can be a source of renewable energy. (Photo: Bridget Murphy)

When Griggs was 15, the members of his family's church, Oakland Christian, decided to add a steeple.

Contractors said a steeple couldn't be added to the 19th-century building. So Griggs' father, Ira Griggs, and other church members decided to do it themselves. For about three months, they spent weekends building the steeple, then they raised it to the top of the church, where it remains today.

"Neighbors were dependent on neighbors to help whenever," Griggs said. "If a house needed painting, the neighbors got together and helped. If a barn burnt down, they got together and built a barn."

Griggs still lives on the 55-acre farm his family settled in 1949, four years after his birth. He began his education at the one-room Wade School, where he was the only person in his grade for half the eight years he spent there. All eight grades shared a teacher; while she taught one grade, the others did their homework.

In ninth grade, Griggs entered Columbia Public Schools, joining a class of 400 at Jefferson Junior High School.

"I was a little bit nervous and completely overwhelmed," he said with a laugh. "You know, 'My God, who are these people?'"

In 1963, Griggs enrolled at MU to study geology, but he had trouble concentrating on his studies, focusing instead on college women and rock 'n' roll music.

"When he danced to rock 'n' roll, he had a distinct way of doing it, so the girls called him 'crazy legs,'" his brother, Butch Griggs, said.

There was an upside to his "crazy legs" lifestyle. At one of the parties, he met his wife, Nancy. They married in 1970. 

After dropping out of MU in 1966, Griggs was drafted into the Army. He never saw combat in Vietnam. While training at a military base in Georgia, he was called out of service after his father suffered a series of strokes. He returned home to manage the farm and help take care of his father.

In 1968, Griggs took another job as a salesman at Cook's Paint in Columbia, and he was soon promoted to manager. He did well, bringing the store’s ledger from the red to the black. When he was denied a raise, he started his own business, raising money by mortgaging his house, borrowing from his parents and selling stock to his friends and his wife's relatives. He opened a Color World store in 1975 on Business Loop 70, selling flooring and paint.

"My die was cast," Griggs said. "I was the furthest thing from being nervous. It was an amazing achievement. I took a great sense of pride from it."

Until the recent recession, Griggs' business grew at an average rate of 12 percent per year. He attributes his success to his skill at forming relationships.

Griggs' affability is perhaps his most salient characteristic; colleagues nearly always mention his talent with people when they describe him. It's not hard to see why. Griggs is easy to talk with. He builds familiarity with self-deprecating winks and jokes, and he likes to slip people's first names into the middle of sentences while he's talking to them. He’s generous with laughter when someone makes a joke.

To compete, 'be in a position to negotiate'

In February 1989, Boone County Northern District Commissioner Dave Griggs points to a map of possible sites for a future Boone County Jail. (Photo: Wendy Levine/Missourian archive)

Griggs became active in local government in 1988, when he was elected Boone County Northern District commissioner as a Republican. He ran for office on a promise to replace the crowded, aging Boone County Jail, which was in such bad shape that it drew warnings from the federal government. 

Once in office, Griggs helped get the project on track, choosing a location at a county-owned farm and introducing ideas to cut costs. After the jail was finished in December 1990, Griggs and his co-commissioners received some praise for wrapping up the stalled, divisive project.

Griggs considers building the jail his greatest accomplishment; he keeps a gold key to the facility in his office. It rests on one of 32 plaques that crowd the walls and lie in a dusty pile on his bookshelf.

Another significant event happened during his single term as commissioner (he lost the seat in 1991): He became the county liaison to REDI, a recently founded economic development group.

Serving as chairman of REDI in 2003 and from 2009 to 2012, Griggs has left a strong imprint on the organization, both ideologically and physically. Griggs' name is everywhere in REDI's sleek headquarters on the bottom floor of the Walnut Street garage, decorated with furniture that brings "The Jetsons" to mind and equipped with motion-sensing lights. A message thanking Dave and Nancy Griggs for a donation shows up on glass signs above the doors of two offices, including that of REDI President Mike Brooks, as well as a flat-screen TV in the lobby. Griggs donated $6,000 to help build the headquarters.

As chairman of REDI, Griggs became the foremost proponent of using government incentives to attract businesses to Columbia. When he was commissioner, he didn't think incentives were necessary, but by the time he became chairman, increased competition among communities had changed his mind.

"If we're going to compete, we have to be in a position to negotiate," Griggs said. "Probably 80 percent of the requests we get at REDI, the company gives you a packet of info that says, 'Tell us what you've got.' And generally the No. 1 or No. 2 thing in that request is a detailed description of your local incentive package."

In 2003, Griggs formed a REDI task force that recommended offering Chapter 100 incentives, which allow cities and counties to offer 50 percent property tax breaks for 10 years to businesses investing at least $15 million.

After REDI approved the policy, Griggs and then-state Sen. Joe Moseley, D-Columbia, gave presentations to local taxing entities. Some leaders, including then-Mayor Darwin Hindman, worried incentives would lead to a devastating loss of tax revenue.

They also feared that companies would bring employees with them rather than create jobs for Columbia residents and that they would leave once the incentives expired. Griggs helped change their minds, teaching them about safeguards such as a requirement that a committee of taxing entity representatives approve incentives.

County commissioners approved the Chapter 100 policy in 2005. Since then, the only company to take advantage has been Analytical Bio-Chemistry Laboratories, which received $1.5 million in tax breaks in 2007 to build a new facility at Discovery Ridge.

Battling the big chain stores

Dave Griggs, owner of Dave Griggs' Flooring America, walks in October toward large piles of carpet padding that will be sent out for recycling. (Photo: Bridget Murphy)

The floor of Dave Griggs’ Flooring America resembles a Tetris game in which the colorful shapes are replaced by different styles of earth-toned carpet, hardwood and laminate flooring. Dozens of shelves display tiny squares of tile or flooring samples that hang like dog ears. The windows at the front of the store offer a view of a bleak, busy stretch of Business Loop 70.

At 8 on a Monday morning, Griggs met with six employees in the middle of the store. The workers sat at a table with stainless-steel coffee mugs while Griggs stood, leaning forward on a chair, flashing an eager, confident smile and wearing a shirt with his store’s logo stitched on its breast pocket.

One employee told Griggs that he hoped to sell ceramic tiles to Real Estate Management Inc., but he was having trouble getting them at a price low enough to beat Lowe's.

"How much you want to bet I can't find that for you?" Griggs asked.

Griggs later explained that his business has to compete with Home Depot and Lowe's every time REMI, a company that owns more than a hundred rental properties, buys flooring. He usually gets its business, but Lowe's outbid him last time.

Competition from chains has been Griggs’ biggest business challenge. After they arrived in Columbia in the '90s, Griggs coped by moving into a larger building and joining the nationwide Flooring America cooperative. He pays a monthly fee to take advantage of its purchasing power, marketing expertise and access to new products.

"I guarantee I wouldn't be in business today if I hadn't done that," he said.

Each year, Griggs spends six figures on advertising to keep his name prominent among the more than 20 business that sell flooring in the area. He produces eight to 10 radio commercials and six to eight television commercials a year, most of which feature himself.

About 15 years ago, Griggs came up with the slogan "Dave Biggs' Flooring America" after the toddler son of a friend pronounced his name that way. It's been repeated thousands of times in jingles on his commercials. The jingle even plays when callers to his business are put on hold.

In Project Tiger, a push for Big Blue

Gov. Jay Nixon announces in May 2010 that IBM agreed to bring 800 jobs to Columbia. Dave Griggs, left, opened the announcement. (Photo: Daniel Longar/Missourian archive)

The effort to bring an IBM service center to Columbia — nicknamed “Project Tiger” — began in 2009, when the Missouri Partnership recommended Columbia to IBM.

When IBM considered Columbia for another project four years earlier, the city offered Chapter 100 incentives. Instead, IBM chose a $53 million incentive package from Dubuque, Iowa. With that in mind, and the knowledge that IBM also was considering many other cities for the service center, REDI members decided to go much bigger with their offer.

REDI representatives won then-Mayor Darwin Hindman’s support of a plan for the city to buy a building and lease it to IBM for $1 a year. They chose an abandoned warehouse on Lemone Industrial Boulevard.

Griggs took part in most of the negotiations between the city and IBM that winter and spring. He also acted as a host on three visits that IBM executives made to Columbia to examine its workforce and capacity for job training. They also toured the warehouse and ate meals with politicians, including Gov. Jay Nixon. 

Brooks praised Griggs' rapport with the IBM executives. "David is very personable. David and Ed had a very good working relationship — jovial, friendly," Brooks said, referring to Ed Perry, IBM's director of governmental programs.

"What helped for the IBM people was that Dave was a volunteer," Brooks said. "When I'm sitting in a meeting and I'm talking about a community, the company knows that's my job. But when someone is there because they're a volunteer, and they're doing it because their heart's there, that makes a big difference."

In addition to impressing IBM, the city faced the challenge of fixing up the Lemone building. Griggs helped form a coalition of local banks to loan $10 million to the Columbia Area Jobs Foundation to restore the building before IBM moved in.

In May 2010, IBM agreed on incentives involving $28 million in tax credits from state organizations and millions of dollars in reductions of sales and property taxes on IBM's equipment purchases. The city bought the Lemone building for $3.2 million.

IBM and local officials predicted the plant would bring 800 jobs and a $44 million payroll to Columbia. Brooks said the service center, which opened in November 2010, has created about 600 jobs so far.

After the IBM deal, Griggs scored a contract to provide flooring for the plant. He said the contract was worth $162,977, but the Columbia Daily Tribune put it at $350,000. He doesn’t view the contract as unethical or a conflict of interest.

"I would respond that IBM's flooring was purchased under a national purchasing program, the price was preset, and we have been well-known as a flooring company for a long time," he said. "As a commercial flooring company, I have a great relationship with IBM. Our business is built on relationships, and that relationship is there."

Could incentives attract smaller businesses?

Mayor Bob McDavid, left, shakes hands with Dave Griggs in April 2011 after Griggs received an award for volunteer service to Columbia. (Photo: Matthew Busch/Missourian archives) 

"This person in the room needs no introduction — Dave Griggs," City Manager Mike Matthes said during a Jan. 17, 2012, City Council work session. 

As he walked to the lectern, Griggs exchanged banter with Third Ward Councilman Gary Kespohl, bringing laughs from several council members. Griggs has known Kespohl since 1982, when Kespohl set up the computer billing system for his business.

Wearing a sport coat and a checkered sweater vest that gave him the air of a professor, Griggs gave a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the council to EEZs, REDI's newest idea for an incentive program.

Authorized by state law, EEZs exempt property taxes and offer tax credits to companies that locate or expand and create jobs within their boundaries. To become an EEZ, however, officials must declare that the area is impoverished and is either blighted or in danger of becoming so.

REDI set its hope on EEZs as an incentive it could offer to businesses that weren't making investments large enough to qualify for other incentive programs. A business needs to add only two full-time jobs and invest $100,000 to tap EEZ credits.

As REDI chairman, Griggs became the face of the effort to persuade the public of EEZs' value. He met with the Columbia Library District Board, the Boone County Fire Protection District Board (of which he was and is a member) and Boone County commissioners to garner support. He also spoke to the Columbia Board of Realtors to quell fears that the blight designation would harm property values.

After Griggs’ Jan. 17 presentation, council members seemed supportive. At his suggestion, they passed a resolution creating an EEZ Advisory Board at their Feb. 6, 2012, meeting.

Before long, however, heated opposition formed. Many residents worried the blight designation would lower property values and make it easier for city government to use eminent domain. The fears were stoked by memories of urban development projects of the '50s and '60s that erased neighborhoods such as the African-American Sharp End area.

As winter turned to spring, opposition to EEZs became more organized and vocal. Council meetings were packed with enemies of EEZs, and protesters began showing up outside city hall waving a bedsheet with the words, "Fight the blight." Concerned citizens formed a political action committee to oppose the zones.

Griggs believes community fears about the blight decree were unfounded.

"I personally think it would raise property values," he said. "What makes a home more valuable? A vibrant community with people who create demand for goods and services. If people are leaving Columbia because they can't make a living — that's how we lower property values."

Griggs said the reaction was not entirely a surprise, considering Columbia’s political climate.

"That's just a political reality of Columbia," Griggs said. "The diversity of our population — we are recognized around the state as being kind of an elitist community in some situations and not very aggressive in economic development."

He added: "There's a great lack of trust in business and community leaders."

'Fight the blight' forces prevail

Protesters gather in May outside the Daniel Boone City Building in opposition to a proposed enhanced enterprise zone for Columbia. (Photo: Robert Swain/Missourian archive)

Griggs opened his May 7 speech to the City Council with a joke. "City Council members, I'd like to introduce myself as the villain of the community."

He was referring to the vitriol cast upon him by Mike Martin, a landowner and EEZ opponent who publishes the Columbia Heart Beat website. That spring, Martin wrote several acerbic posts about Griggs, accusing him of showing contempt toward concerns about the blight declaration and of having an "ultra-cozy relationship with City Hall."

In April, Martin posted portions of communications between Griggs and city officials in which Griggs used harsh words to describe EEZ opponents. The emails are also evidence of Griggs' ease with local officials, full of chummy language, exclamation points, and an invitation for coffee to Mayor Bob McDavid.

The way he was depicted in Martin's posts bothered Griggs. "But also, I'm a former elected official; I understand, that's just part of it. I would tell you if you asked a hundred people — 'Am I that kind of a person?' — 85 or 90 of them would say no, and that's pretty good odds."

In December, REDI decided to end its push for EEZs because of prolonged community opposition. Griggs was cheerful and talkative when he explained REDI’s reasons for giving up the fight. 

“The question was, how much political capital and good reputation are we willing to risk on this battle?” he said. He promised REDI would look for other business incentives.

Although REDI lost the battle over EEZs, it has won the war. Incentives have become the modus operandi for economic development in Columbia. In summer 2011, when Google was considering Columbia as the location of a fiber-optic network that would offer astronomical Internet speeds, the city offered incentives such as reductions of utility payments and infrastructure improvements. In the end, Google chose Kansas City.

"We approach any game-changing prospect with the attitude: What do you need?" Griggs said. "How can we best meet those needs?"

'A great deal' — if it works

A miscanthus giganteus plant stands Oct. 12 in Dave Griggs' empty field. (Photo: Bridget Murphy)

REDI relationships helped create a new job for Griggs: biomass farmer.

On a warm autumn afternoon, Griggs, wearing a Flooring America shirt, walked into his garage and climbed into his pickup, which had the same company logo stamped on its sides. He drove away from his two-story beige home with an MU flag hanging by the front door and veered into a scraggly field where a few tufts of what appeared to be weeds stuck up like stubborn cowlicks.

Last year, Griggs departed from his usual rotation of corn and soybeans on the 27-acre field to plant Miscanthus giganteus, which scientists hope can be burned for energy or converted into ethanol.

MFA Oil Co. has received a federal grant to experiment with the crop in central Missouri. After hearing about the program through friends at REDI who knew people at MFA, Griggs worked out a contract with MFA, the Farm Service Agency, and the the U.S. Department of Agriculture to grow the crop on his field, sharing costs, labor and profits.

After Griggs mowed down his last crop, MFA planted the miscanthus. Griggs’ job is to maintain an empty ring around the field to ensure the crop doesn't take over the surrounding environment.

It seems there's little danger of that. Last summer's drought killed almost the entire crop. The field, which should have been bursting with stalks 12 feet tall, was a carpet of weeds and rotting corn stalks from the past season. 

Despite the crop's failure, Griggs plans to plant it again this spring.

"I was — am — really excited about it," he said. "If it works, it'll be a great deal. The intriguing thing for me is, if I can grow electricity in my field, that'd be pretty great."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.