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Proposed nonprofit would spur regionalism in SWMO

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A new nonprofit is in the works to guide efforts toward regionalism in southwest Missouri.

Executive development official Dean Thompson is making phone calls to gauge interest for involvement in such an organization – and his calls are going straight to area C-suites. Thompson holds two key positions as both executive director of regionalism and economic development for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce and vice president and chief economic development officer for City Utilities of Springfield, and from that perch, he is in position to get business leaders to pick up the phone.

A regional task force has been at work for over a year on ways to foster collaboration in a 10-county region including Greene, with a special focus on three areas: workforce development, quality of life and branding.

The group itself is nameless, but it was born from a chamber Community Leadership Visit to northwest Arkansas in 2022.

“Seeing what they’re doing, that really resonated with a lot of the folks to say, oh, boy, we could do so much more on a regional basis,” said Brian Fogle, former president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc.

Fogle called the group a regional task force, and its goal was to look at ways a regional effort might be able to coalesce in southwest Missouri, he said.

To forward the group’s momentum, CFO and the Hatch Foundation commissioned a study by Shallotte, North Carolina-based consultancy Economic Leadership LLC. The two foundations shared the study’s $30,000 cost.

The study, authored by consultant Ted Abernathy, recommended the formation of a new nonprofit organization to guide a structured regional collaboration comprising the 10 counties that already have a working relationship through their membership in the Southwest Missouri Council of Governments. In addition to Greene County, those are Barry, Christian, Dade, Dallas, Lawrence, Polk, Stone, Taney and Webster.

Step one, the study says, is to develop a list of potential CEO members and hold one-on-one meetings to secure commitments for a new 501(c)(3) with the tripart focus – and that’s where Thompson comes in.

“We have to find out if it resonates,” Thompson said, noting he would be assessing the level of interest in the initiative. “If we talk to 10-20 CEOs and one or two say yes, there’s no reason to do it – we have to be honest with ourselves. We don’t need to spend resources trying to do something people don’t see value in.”

But as it happens, some do see the value. Thompson said a couple of CEOs are already committed, but he’s not disclosing names yet.

CEO members
Thompson said the new organization would look to solve complex problems, and the CEOs in the group are the ones to probe the basic question: What are the strategic-level items that are negatively impacting our ability to be competitive?

“We have a lot of good things happening in the region, but we can do better if we’re going to be competitive,” he said. “We have to figure out, how do we give more of our private-sector CEOs engagement into the process?”

Thompson noted CEOs and business owners have a unique perspective to see issues that impact talent attraction and retention.

The organization Thompson is trying to piece together is modeled after the Northwest Arkansas Council, an organization formed more than three decades ago and headquartered in Springdale. Founded by commercial titans Sam Walton of Walmart, J.B. Hunt of J.B. Hunt Transport Services and John Tyson of Tyson Foods, along with other business leaders, the council today has more than 100 company members, including high-level staff from all of the region’s largest employers, according to the Economic Leadership study. It is governed by a 13-member executive committee and some 18 staff members.

“Why did they come together? A lot of people will say they wanted to build an airport and they wanted to create (Interstate) 49,” Thompson said. “That wasn’t it. It was about how do we create an environment and how do we create quality of life to where we can get employees in the area and they want to stay? That’s the challenge.”

Report findings
The Economic Leadership report observed that the southwest Missouri region is economically successful but faces challenges that are increasingly complex.

From July 2020 to July 2022, the report states, all 10 counties in the proposed organization experienced population growth, with the region as a whole growing by 2%. Current estimates are that the population will grow by about 5% over the next five years. Job growth has exceeded the national average over the two-year period cited in the report.

Even so, continued workforce availability, poverty, housing, crime and child care are all areas that require attention, the report states.

For public-sector officials in the region, the Council of Governments already provides a forum for engagement.

“What is missing now, and has been deemed a critical need, is engaging the regional private sector CEOs in discussions of workforce, quality of life and branding,” the report states.

To move forward, the organization will need a minimum of $250,000-$300,000 guaranteed annually for the first three years, according to the report.

Funding would come from the initial membership, with an ask for an additional capitalization donation, as well as contributions from local foundations. If there is not sufficient interest in self-funding, the report suggests linking with a local foundation to create a future basis for a stand-alone organization.

“Within the first couple of years, the organization must deliver results, and that will likely require additional funding of $1 million-$2 million,” it adds.

While the report does not recommend a particular number of staff, it says the organization should have enough staff and volunteer resources to meet its goals. Other recommendations include having the strongest, most engaged leaders possible, as well as a clear strategic plan and transparency to all members and investors.

Thompson said it will be of key importance to get the right people on board to transform the region. At the outset, he envisions eight executives making up the organization. Later, paid membership tiers could be offered.

“In my 30 years of working in public and private sectors, I have never seen faster response to solving issues than a group of CEOs,” he said. “They can do that because they can move faster.”

He gave the example of storm preparation: When a hurricane is ready to come ashore and 65,000 line workers are already pre-staged and ready to move in to repair downed powerlines.

“That’s because CEOs are around the table saying, ‘I’m going to get these trucks down to Florida,’” he said. “To me, there’s no reason we can’t do that with a group of CEOs here, where they are very nimble, they have the resources, and they have the connections to make things happen.”

Momentum building
Erin Danastasio, executive director of the nonprofit Hatch Foundation, was one of the 82 people who attended the chamber-sponsored Community Leadership Visit to northwest Arkansas, including visits to the cities of Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale. She returned with a fervor for regional collaboration and a newfound knowledge of the Northwest Arkansas Council.

“Northwest Arkansas made it very clear to me that when communities come together to work alongside each other and support one another – sometimes even putting their own needs aside for the greater good – it is a long-term win for everyone,” she said. “That’s why Hatch decided to invest in this project: because we believe that this is the beginning to a better future for our area.”

Danastasio said she wasn’t sure what Abernathy would recommend when the conversation about regionalism began, but she likes where the study ended up.

“I am confident that with the guidelines he has laid out for us, we can make great strides for our community,” she said.

Matt Morrow, president and CEO of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, called the study a starting point.

“There’s a lot of work still to figure out there, but one of the things I love is that there’s a mechanism to tackle some of the big opportunities and big challenges that potentially either get in the way of or advance development, tourism – all the things that those of us who do this can’t really focus our day-to-day attention on,” he said.

He added that big ideas are one of the things he likes best about the Community Leadership Visit program.

“A lot of the things that we sort of take as part of who we are and what we do now started out that way,” he said. “If we can tackle some of those big stones in the stream, then that can really help all of us work on what our community and region need to be doing better.”

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