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Meeting Demands: Local cities still prioritize infrastructure, workforce to attract and retain business

SBJ Economic Growth Survey: The Next Peak

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 When it comes to business attraction and retention in Springfield and surrounding cities, local officials agree that even in today’s uncertain economic market the recipe of needing strong infrastructure and a large skilled workforce remains the same.

That’s not to say all companies have identical demands. The criteria they study or inquire about in a community is very much based on their business model, says Vicki Pratt, senior vice president of economic development with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. 

“I like to use the analogy that you can’t paint the wall one color and everybody’s going to love it,” she says.

Over her 30 years working in economic development, Pratt says workforce needs always have been among the top three issues companies ask communities about when considering relocation or expansion efforts. Others are infrastructure and the cost of doing business.

Many respondents in Springfield Business Journal’s 2022 Economic Growth Survey note both cost of doing business and access to skilled workers have worsened over the past year. Roughly 87% of respondents say the cost of doing business is worse, while 70% believe skilled worker access has declined in the past 12 months. 

The economic impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic over the past couple of years has spotlighted the need for a skilled workforce, and Pratt says labor needs used to be about the cost, quality and availability of it – typically in that order. Availability is now probably the top priority, she says.

“Cost and quality, while they absolutely still matter, it’s just an issue of is there anyone to work at all,” she says.

The Springfield metropolitan statistical area’s unemployment rate was at 1.9% in June – the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s down from May’s 2.4% in the MSA, which comprises Greene, Christian, Dallas, Polk and Webster counties. 

Andrew Nelson, Republic’s deputy city administrator, says workforce questions invariably come from developers right after infrastructure. 

“For Republic, we benefit from being in southwest Missouri. Our southwest Missouri model isn’t that you’re going to live in the same town you work in,” he said, noting its largest employer, by far, is Amazon with a workforce of roughly 1,400. “We see the benefit of being within 30 minutes of Springfield, Nixa, Ozark, Strafford, Willard and Mount Vernon – really all those areas that have workforce. People in Republic know they can tap into those.”

Having development-ready sites were among the keys to landing Amazon.com Inc. (NYSE: AMZN) and nonprofit Convoy of Hope, Republic officials say. Amazon opened a 1.3 million-square-foot fulfillment center in August 2021. That was followed last fall when Convoy of Hope opened its $14 million, 250,000-square-foot world distribution center on 135 acres the organization purchased in 2020. The nonprofit is now building its $34 million global headquarters and training center, a 195,000-square-foot project adjacent to the distribution center in advance of a projected 2023 opening.

“For us, when it comes to attracting business, it’s providing the infrastructure necessary for them to locate here, especially on undeveloped parcels,” Nelson says. “When it comes to site selecting, the more you can demonstrate that there’s less burden on their part to have readily available infrastructure – water, sewer, transportation improvements and things like that – that’s what attracts them.”

As for data, Nelson says companies – particularly on the retail side – regularly inquire about traffic counts. That’s followed by population statistics such as median income and average age of households.

Quality investments
Nixa City Administrator Jimmy Liles says he also hears questions about demographics and housing availability.

“Quality of life and culture of community has become one that has really had a lot of emphasis placed by developers,” he says, noting they want to know about education options and amenities such as parks, walkability and recreation. 

Upgrading amenities and investing in public safety is behind a proposed 1-cent general sales tax increase that Nixa City Council approved this month to place before voters in November. The ballot issue seeks to fund roughly $39 million worth of parks and police projects. The Nixa Parks & Recreation Department is proposing $25 million for an 80,000-square-foot indoor sports complex, while the Police Department looks to build a three-story headquarters at a cost of $13 million, as well as adding nearly $1 million in the annual budget for 11 more police officers.

“It’s going to benefit our current businesses as well as future development,” Liles said. 

Another attractor for companies to expand or relocate can be the city’s existing businesses, said Ozark City Administrator Steve Childers. 

“All businesses want to locate and be around other businesses that are successful,” he says. “It’s why fast-food companies, chains or otherwise, want to be near McDonald’s.”

Finley Farms is the largest commercial development to come to Ozark in the past several years, he says. The Johnny Morris-owned property includes a coffee shop, urban farm, restaurants, event space and hosts the weekly Ozark Farmers Market from May through September. The development serves as an attraction for visitors and potential businesses, Childers says.

Nixa also hopes to have its own draw this fall when a $3.7 million food hall and entertainment venue, dubbed 14 Mill Market, opens near the city’s Main Street. 

“That’s one of the largest ones we’ve had in a while,” Liles says, adding city officials addressed traffic count and infrastructure questions from the developers, Rich and Leah Callahan, as the project began. 

Liles says infrastructure is the most important component for commercial and industrial development in Nixa.

“Water and sewer are two things that a lot of people really don’t think about, but it’s extremely important for future and current development to make sure you have those things in place and readily accessible,” he says.

The city plans to invest $3.5 million-$4 million next year on two new sewer lift stations in the west and south ends of town.

“After the first of the year is my hope that we will be able to start building those relatively quickly,” he says, noting both stations are in the design phase.

Regional wins
When it comes to accruing economic development wins, Nelson says projects that draw companies and consumers to the area are good for southwest Missouri, no matter where they are located.

Nelson says if developers come to Republic with projects that don’t fit the city for whatever reason, be it available land or infrastructure needs, officials will point them to other cities in the area. He says it stems from the idea that a regional win is better than seeing the company entirely bypass the area. 

Pratt agrees, noting she looks at all projects that come to the attention of the Springfield chamber with a regional lens. 

“Whoever has got what the company is looking for, let’s put our best foot forward and get in front of them,” she says. “We try to find out how many sites we’ve got available today that will fit this criteria across the region. If we can’t win it for the region, we try to win it for the state.”

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