When William Fruth came to town in November to give a presentation on the economic future of Columbia and Boone County, he perplexed the audience with his research findings and insight. Carol Van Gorp, CEO for the Columbia Board of Realtors, said his first appearance created so much buzz the board decided he should give a second presentation.
Fruth, president of POLICOM Corp., an independent economics research firm in Palm City, Fla., returns Friday to speak at the Elks Lodge.
“Many of us who attended (last year) felt like there was so much important information that it needed to be disseminated to a wider audience,” said Steve Strawn, 2006 president of the Columbia Board of Realtors, who attended last year’s forum at Stoney Creek Inn.
“I think we in Columbia are so used to hearing about increases in jobs, low unemployment, growth in retail, growth in the community, and (Fruth) came through and said ‘I have concerns’ and expressed them,” said James Estes, president elect for the Columbia Board of Realtors.
When Strawn heard what Fruth had to say last year, he said it was “interesting” but also “surprising.”
“Columbia is a great place to live, but we shouldn’t get complacent,” Strawn said. “Fruth’s presentation made it clear that our local economic performance has been slipping since 1994. We need to address that issue before it becomes a crisis.”
Columbia’s median income, among other factors, was a wake-up call to everyone in the audience, Strawn said. “It was interesting to see the graph comparing the median salary (Boone County).”
Fruth presented two charts that showed Boone County keeping pace with the strongest Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the country from 1975 until about 1994, when Boone County’s wages and earnings began failing to keep pace.
Fruth emphasized the type of jobs people have, rather than unemployment rates, Strawn said.
“Job growth in and of itself is not necessarily good; it’s what kinds of jobs, what kinds of industries,” he said. “You want to look at ones that will provide better opportunity.”
The great myth, according to Fruth, is that any type of employment improves the economy.
Fruth said that you need to create more jobs which pay a higher wage than the area average in order to improve the economy, Strawn said.
Boone County Northern District Commissioner Skip Elkin, who plans to attend the forum, said he hopes to learn how Columbia “can compete in the world market and attract a high-tech community.”
Elkin said he has noticed a change in Columbia’s economy since last year.
“It depends on who you ask, but I think it has slowed down,” he said. “We started having a downturn of building permits — that is a key indicator of how things are.”
He also said that Columbia has recently experienced some shutdowns.
Summit Polymers, an auto manufacturing plant, for instance, closed in December, cutting about 190 jobs.
Elkin said Columbia should focus on a collaborative effort between MU’s research in life sciences, private businesses and government leadership to attract high-tech industries.
“We can have a public-private partnership to attract these new industries,” he said.
Elkin would like to see Columbia attract more life-science, high-tech companies for both job growth and higher paying jobs, he said.
He hopes to learn “what tools we need in our tool box to allow us to compete to get more of these type of companies.
“We need to capitalize on our strengths because we do have the research institution here; let’s capitalize on that,” he said.
An interesting question Strawn learned to ask at last year’s conference is how a major university like MU impacts a local economy.
“Is their mission to create ideas and products to market or is it an ivory tower dedicated to pure knowledge and learning?” Strawn asked.
He said Fruth made it very clear that the relationship between the university and the city is a key one in terms of the well-being of the institution and the economic health of the city.
According to POLICOM rankings of the economic strength of 363 metropolitan areas, Columbia ranked 130 in 2006, 136 in 2005 and 112 in 2004. The rankings measure the growth in size of the area and quality, which is based on what people earn and their standard of living.
Fruth’s return is not meant to prepare Columbia residents for pending doom, but for residents to learn how to improve Columbia’s economic state in the long-run.
“We need to make plans for the future,” Van Gorp said.