New Jersey consultant says Columbia’s economy is strong

Tuesday, December 4, 2007 | 9:00 p.m. CST; updated 2:20 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

COLUMBIA — Performance-based tax provisions. Long-term protracted labor shortage. Shell-buildings. Four-lane highways. Local inducements. Diversification. The New Economy, the Knowledge-based Economy, the Innovative Economy. “Young, growing population.” “Highly educated workforce.” Recession, no recession.

These concepts were discussed Tuesday at the Economic Outlook Conference at the Stoney Creek Inn. The annual conference, sponsored by local accounting firm Williams-Keepers, serves to map and identify future trends in Columbia’s economy.

The luncheon address by Dennis Donovan of New Jersey-based WDG Consulting was billed as a “outsider’s impression” of the local economy. And his impression was largely positive.

Despite a regular drumbeat of dour economic news in the national media, Donovan said he does not believe the country is headed toward an economic downturn. He implored the audience of Realtors, entrepreneurs and business owners not to listen to media speculation: “Lou Dobbs’ scare tactics are hyperbole,” he said, referring to the CNN anchor.

Columbia is in a position to succeed economically and attract new businesses from outside the area, Donovan said. The consultant spoke about the city’s young, educated workforce, growing population and access to a major interstate highway as advantages to attracting new business. He also said the facilities MU provides, such as a medical school and research park, would help in that effort.

“You’ve got everything but the companies,” Donovan said.

Donovan’s address comes at a time when Columbia’s economy is showing signs of softening. The growth of sales tax receipts, one indicator of consumer confidence, have slowed for both the city and county. Just last week, a report from the Boone County auditor showed almost no growth in recent tax collections. The auditor also predicted an anemic 0.5 percent growth rate in sales tax revenue for 2008.

And on a national level, news from the housing sector in particular has been grim.

Still, at least one attendee seemed to think the economic rules are a little different in mid-America.

“Our situation is clearly different in that we are not as volatile as the coasts,” said Mike Hill, with Weichert Realtors. “But at the same time, we have to be aware what we’re up to so we don’t put ourselves in that position.”

During the luncheon portion of the half-day affair, conservatively dressed attendees sat eating baked chicken and taking notes.

Donovan was critical of one aspect of Columbia’s infrastructure, though: the air traffic. Columbia Regional Airport currently only has service to Kansas City. To be competitive, he said, the city needs air service to Chicago and Dallas.

Bonnie Maiers, who owns the management consulting firm BlueCrestVentures, said she attended the conference to stay in touch with the local economy. Maiers, however, has a different view about the future of Columbia’s economy.

Maiers described what she called “the new economy,” an economy based on knowledge and innovation rather than manufacturing. Above all, her new economy is a local economy.

“Homegrown businesses do not rely on taking business from other parts of the nation,” she said. “Therefore they are sustainable economies.”

There seemed to be little debate that Columbia is in a position to succeed economically in the long term, whether from without or from within. “There’s not another city in Missouri that has access to our infrastructure,” said Kari Dowell, a marketing manager for Williams-Keepers.

The current state of the local economy is nuanced, though. Callaway Bank development officer Craig Brumfield, also an attendee at the conference, said, “It’s not as bad as you think, in our estimation.” However, he also noted: “My dad owns a drywall company (in Columbia) and he’s doing absolutely nothing” as far as workload.

Columbia’s economic future is uncertain, but one thing is sure: Residents of Columbia, at least compared to their East Coast brethren, have it good with an easy commute.

Donovan was shocked when a Columbia resident told him about his 12 minute commute to work: “Twelve minutes? Where I come from in New Jersey if you have a twelve minute commute to work, you’re not even a commuter!”

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