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UPTICK IN TECH: In terms of economic success, development specialist Ted Abernathy says Springfield is doing well and is about to do even better
Tawnie Wilson | SBJ
UPTICK IN TECH: In terms of economic success, development specialist Ted Abernathy says Springfield is doing well and is about to do even better

Springfield poised for growth, says eco devo specialist

SBDC speaker identifies regional identity and workforce as key factors to development

Posted online

The economic outlook for Springfield is a sunny one, especially in the technology sector.

That’s the synopsis of Ted Abernathy, the featured speaker at the annual meeting of the Springfield Business Development Corp., which was attended by 480 people on March 6 at the Oasis Hotel & Convention Center and marked the 40th year for the economic development group.

Abernathy’s company, North Carolina-based Economic Leadership LLC, has worked on projects in more than 20 states and internationally, and he is an economic adviser to the National Association of State Chambers, according to the SBDC. He also works to help companies with site selection around the country, and his remarks focused in part on what makes a community desirable for a company seeking a location.

“If you look just since the beginning of COVID, then Missouri’s right in the middle of states that are doing pretty well,” he said. “If you look at what’s happening by sector, construction in Missouri is higher than the national average. Look at manufacturing. The state has exploded as a manufacturing location. Look at financial activities – they’ve come back strong.”

And while Missouri is outpacing about half of the states, Springfield’s performance is even better.

“Missouri’s actually on a run lately, and if you look at Springfield compared to Missouri, you guys are doing really good,” he said.

He said manufacturing jobs over the last 10 years have favored the Midwest and Southeast.

“Missouri has ridden the tide of economic success based on that,” he said.

He added that tech manufacturing jobs are driving the state’s growth.

“Our projections are that you’re about to do even better,” he said. “We think there’s a huge uptick available to the state in those tech manufacturers.”

On a map of Missouri indicating tech occupations as a percentage of total jobs, Greene County was one of 13 mostly urban counties where tech occupations made up more than 5% of total jobs, and the field is trending upward, according to Abernathy.

Emily Buckmaster, executive director of the Springfield Tech Council, said she was not surprised at Abernathy’s forecast for the tech industry.

“Just looking at that as a potential attractor to the area is exciting,” she said. “Based on the growth we are seeing at our Tech Council, I think that’s a positive factor.”

Abernathy co-authored the Missouri Chamber of Commerce-commissioned Technology2030 report, which attributed the state’s net positive migration since 2020, in part, to tech sector jobs. Prior to 2020, in 2012-19, the state experienced a negative net migration. The state’s tech job force grew by 10.5% from 2017-22, the report found.

Attracting development
Abernathy highlighted two top challenges the region faces: workforce needs and branding.

“How you think about that region is all important,” he said.

At the city level, he said, there is a hard and fast rule in development that says, “No product, no projects.” That means cities must have sites available for companies to move into.

“If you don’t have the buildings in sight, you’re not in the game, ever,” he said. “If you don’t have a building ready to go or a site ready to be mowed and built on, you do not get projects.”

Speedy approval processes and strong incentives are also necessary, but he said so is quality of life.

Abernathy said economic development, workforce development and community development are interdependent.

“You can’t get workforce without housing. You can’t get housing without jobs. You can’t get jobs without the other two anymore in America,” he said.

In the past, economic developers didn’t have to spend time with workforce people. That has changed, he said, and now, workforce is a top priority.

“Until 10 years ago, if you did a child care study, it was a one-off – it wasn’t really the most important thing,” he said. “And I’m doing four of them right now for communities who can’t get new jobs because they don’t have child care.”

According to Abernathy, a lot is going on in the region to tie together.

“You’ve also got to bring those CEOs and the business leadership to the table, because they’re the people that are going to be necessary to make this happen,” he said. “You also need to do it now. It’s not something that you wait five years for, because everybody else is trying to figure this out at the same time.”

Kevin Ausburn, chair and CEO of SMC Packaging Group, said he is one of a group of CEOs selected by Dean Thompson, executive director of regionalism and economic development for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, to serve in a new nonprofit organization targeted at addressing some of the area’s needs. The nonprofit came at Abernathy’s suggestion through a study released in January and funded by the Hatch Foundation.

“I’m excited,” Ausburn said after listening to Abernathy’s remarks. “I’ve been tapped to serve in the strategic planning group, so I know this kind of kicked us off to be thinking about issues that we’re going to be discussing for the region – and yeah, I’m real excited.”

Knowing the community
Abernathy addressed the importance of branding to keep the momentum going.

“Starting regional competitiveness – first of all, it lasts forever,” he said. “You’ve all been on a 40-year journey; you’ll be on an 80-year journey.”

He noted some people are stewards of the community.

“You’ve got roots here. You believe that your goal in life is to make this place better – not just your company, not just your neighborhood, not just your family, but this place,” he said. “The places that succeed have place stewards.”

He added that sometimes people get caught up in what didn’t work years ago, but it’s important to think about the future.

“What do you want for your community?” he said. “Do you want more of the same, or do you want better jobs with higher pay? Do you want a higher standard of living, quality of life? What do you want? What do you need to be successful here? And what can you get? What’s realistic?”

When communities know what they want and whether it is realistic, fundable and impactful, they are poised to become competitive, Abernathy said.

Brian Hammons, chair of the Springfield chamber board and president and CEO of Hammons Products Co., said Abernathy’s presentation was insightful, especially as the chamber embarks on further work with the development professional.

“Springfield has a lot of great things going for us,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to build from, and I’m looking forward to the next few months working with Ted as he helps us with facilitating our strategic planning process.”

Branding will be front and center, according to Hammons.

“Ted has explained to us that branding is much more than a slogan; it’s really the totality of what we think of ourselves and how we want to be known,” he said. “We simply need to do a better job of clarifying who we are, how we want to be known, and then projecting that in a way that’s positive.”

Erin Danastasio, executive director of the Hatch Foundation, said she has been passionate about identity for a long time.

“For us as a community, we need to kind of turn the speakers inward and understand the wonderful things we have here in our region,” she said, “and then we can start marketing that to others.”

She added that when an organization like CoxHealth – Springfield’s largest employer since 2019, according to Springfield Business Journal list research – interviews people who come to the city for a possible job, they try to sell the region and all the things there are to experience within it.

“They need to understand the benefits of living here, and so much of that is quality of life, but again, that all ties into branding as well,” Danastasio said.

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