As J. Mac Holladay, founder and CEO of Market Street Services Inc., prepared to deliver the findings of a competitive analysis of the Springfield-area economic landscape, he delivered one rule:

"You may not shoot the messenger," he said standing before the sold-out crowd at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce's sixth annual Economic Outlook Conference on Oct. 14 at Doubletree Hotel.

While a healthy dose of good was mixed with the bad, it became clear that metropolitan Springfield faces plenty of challenges on the path to economic development.

While Holladay pointed out that he was delivering data, not recommendations for action, he repeatedly underscored the need of area leaders to confront issues now.

"The greatest enemy you have is complacency," Holladay said. "There is no question that we're going to come out of this recovery in a different place than we went into it."

The findings - broken into people, prosperity and place categories - quickly pointed to a "bifurcated economy," Holladay said, noting a disconnect between positive job growth and soft wages. The Springfield area's 7.5 percent job-growth rate between 2004 and 2008 ranked highest among the report's comparative communities - Knoxville, Tenn.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Kalamazoo, Mich. - and the area's $32,962 average wage was the lowest of the four cities.

Holladay and his team collected data from federal and state government sources and through stakeholder input gathered in two days of focus groups and interviews as well as a Web survey of about 400 Springfield economic development and business professionals.

"Economic development is about creating wealth for people ... we need to be talking about how we're going to get wages up, not keep them down," Holladay said.

Another troubling issue, Holladay said, is a "culture of poverty," a situation where families have come to accept poverty. The study shows 2007 poverty rates of 13.7 percent for families and 19.9 percent for children in Springfield. Both rates are the highest of the communities studied. Additionally, 42 percent of students in the Springfield Public Schools system qualify for free or reduced lunches.

"With poverty rising - bringing with it a host of social and demographic challenges - and below-average wages forcing some existing and potential residents to choose elsewhere to live, Springfield is struggling to maintain its foothold in the new economy," Holladay wrote in the study's conclusion.

On the upside, Springfield offers a dynamic quality of life, lower cost of living, strong health care options, the fourth lowest utility rates in the nation, a vibrant downtown, the IDEA Commons and abundant recreational opportunities.

Other problems identified in the report: Declining student performance; a fast-growing 25- to 34-year-old population, but limited number of entry-level jobs offering competitive pay; weak state support for higher education and work force development; reportedly nonbusiness-friendly development processes at the city of Springfield; risk-averse public leadership; a local daily newspaper that has lost credibility and objectivity; risk of potential government regulation and increased development costs from high relative percentage of facilities that degrade the environment.

During a question-and-answer session, Holladay urged business leaders to build on strengths, be positive and talk about issues with the community.

"There are many, many places in this country that would kill to have the numbers you have," he said.

At a conference roundtable discussion, community leaders considered the importance of finding solutions to the problems outlined.

"We begin by confronting the brutal facts," said participant Tim Rosenbury, chairman and executive vice president of Butler, Rosenbury & Partners Inc. "If ever there were brutal facts, we heard them this morning ... some of them are downright alarming."

Education is of paramount importance, said Hal Higdon, president of Ozarks Technical Community College. Funding for state education institutions needs to be more equitable, he said.

Springfield Mayor Jim O'Neal cited the need for greater governmental support of economic development -"and sometimes that means employing that dirty word 'taxes.'"

As the meeting concluded, chamber President Jim Anderson urged community leaders to take an immediate interest in resolving the city's issues.

"How bad does it have to get before we respond?" he asked, asking those present to solve problems in a collaborative way.

"I have faith we will," he said.