Reflecting on 2017, the Springfield Business Journal newsroom selected the top 10 stories that impacted Queen City businesses.
1. Wonders of Wildlife opens its doors
SPRINGFIELD, SEPT. 22—Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium opened its doors Sept. 22, wowing visitors with its intricate wildlife displays, historical items and massive aquariums filled with sea life.
This much-anticipated day was a long time coming, following more than five rescheduled dates. After the initial launch of Wonders of Wildlife in 2001 and its subsequent closure to the public in 2007, founder Johnny Morris spent many years and a portion of his fortune reimagining it into a world-class conservation-themed destination. He tripled the size of the building and bound it physically and symbolically to his flagship Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. He also placed his name on it – now the Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium – and cashed in political and cultural capital by inviting presidents and celebrities to its grand reopening gala Sept. 20.
Construction crews, animal experts and artists worked for about a decade to revitalize the historic Wonders of Wildlife, which now adds about 350,000 square feet to Bass Pro’s existing 500,000. Since February, about 500 construction workers and craftsmen were on-site daily, totaling at least 150,000 man hours. Crews were working right up to the morning of the gala.
Wonders of Wildlife was funded mostly through the Johnny Morris Foundation, which declined to share the total cost – although saying the finances were similar to the Georgia Aquarium, about $290 million.
2. Officers raid 13 massage parlors
SPRINGFIELD, JULY 20—A multiagency crackdown served search warrants at 13 Springfield Asian massage parlors suspected of human trafficking and prostitution.
The raids were quickly followed with emergency action from Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and the Greene County prosecuting attorney’s office, who filed suit in Greene County Circuit Court against 16 defendants.
“Today’s raids make good on my promise: If you come to Missouri to conduct human trafficking, we will find you out and we will shut you down,” Hawley said in a news release.
In a joint investigation by the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Springfield Police Department, search warrants were based on probable cause following thousands of hours of investigation. The moves are part of a broader effort involving associated investigations and search warrants in Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Search warrants were served at Angel Massage, Asian Massage, Shui Massage and Spa, Chi Spa, Golden Massage, Lotus Spa, Massage Best Spa, an unnamed business, Palm Spa, Peace Massage, Phoenix Massage, Relax Spa Silver Center and Sunshine Spa.
Many of the identified spas advertised on websites known for sex trade such as BackPage.com and RubMaps.com, specifically advertising massages provided by young Asian females.
Greene County Judge Michael Cordonnier on Oct. 6 gave a verbal order granting a preliminary injunction blocking six massage parlors from engaging in prostitution.
In April, Hawley announced a continued crackdown on human trafficking, including new regulations under Missouri’s consumer protection laws and the creation of an anti-trafficking unit.
3. Bass Pro finalizes $5B Cabela’s purchase
SPRINGFIELD, SEPT. 25—In its largest catch yet, Bass Pro Shops closed Sept. 25 on the $5 billion purchase of rival Cabela’s Inc. (NYSE: CAB).
The companies reportedly have combined annual revenue of roughly $8.6 billion. Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris became CEO and majority shareholder of the combined entity, and Cabela’s was made private as it merged into Bass Pro.
Cabela’s shareholders July 11 voted to approve the outdoor retailer’s proposed sale. Through the purchase, Bass Pro grew its store count to 184 from 99.
Rumors began circulating about the purchase in 2015 when Reuters, citing “people familiar with the matter,” reported Bass Pro was working with an investment bank. The deal was confirmed Oct. 5, 2016.
The acquisition gave Cabela’s stockholders $61.50 apiece for their shares in the company, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings. Fifteen Cabela’s officers and directors net a combined $859.4 million from the deal.
After Synovus Financial Corp. bought Cabela’s World’s Foremost Bank subsidiary, with plans to sell the division’s credit card assets to Capital One, the company pocketed a $75 million fee for its assist in the deal. The move allowed Bass Pro and Cabela’s to clear the Financial Reserve’s final regulatory hurdle of selling the financial arm of Cabela’s to complete the merger.
Both retailers posted identical pages on their websites explaining any changes. The statement said, “We will continue celebrating and promoting both the Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s brands.” Company representatives said there are no immediate plans to close stores in markets where both retailers operate.
4. KY3, KSPR and the Ozarks CW downsize
SPRINGFIELD, AUG. 18—KY3, KSPR and the Ozarks CW laid off 37 studio workers and on-screen talent Aug. 18, bringing the total number of job cuts to 65 since Atlanta-based Gray Television Inc. bought the combined station at 999 W. Sunshine St. in February 2016.
Employees said they expected downsizing, but were caught off guard by the number of positions terminated – more than a third of the 150 – during the 18 months of restructuring.
Gray Television and KY3 officials said the moves would streamline news production, with many roles in the studio combined or automated.
Ricky Smiley, who voluntarily accepted severance when offered, said KY3 formerly broadcasted the local news with about eight people performing various tasks during a newscast: master control, audio, directing, graphics, teleprompter, plus three camera operators. Under the new system, two or three people – including a producer and a new position called a technical media producer – can handle those duties with new software and remote control cameras.
A single “multimedia journalist” now does news stories developed outside of the studio – which used to require a reporter and another employee to operate a camera, edit and deliver the content remotely.
Others laid off included 17-year anchor Jerry Jacob; Tom Mast, a 30-year media veteran; KY3 News Director Scott Brady, with 31 years of experience, nine at KY3; online news producer Gene Hartley, a journalist since 1979; Jeff Phillips, in TV production since 1989, at KY3 a total of eight years; Scott Puryear, a journalist since 1985, at KY3 since 2016; and Robert Wallace, a newscast director with the company since 1974.
5. Noble sells core advertising business
SPRINGFIELD, JULY 7—In the dead of summer, Bob Noble, above, worked up a sale of the core advertising and marketing business he founded nearly a half-century prior.
Noble Communications Co. finalized a deal July 7 with Pittsbugh-based agency Gatesman Inc. The book of business relinquished by the Springfield businessman represented nearly 90 percent of Noble’s $7.5 million annual client billings. In the move, Noble said goodbye to clients in the construction, insurance, banking, financial, health care and education industries – including Joplin roofing materials manufacturer TAMKO Building Products Inc., interiors manufacturer VT Industries Inc., Country Financial, Pace Suburban Bus and Hoover vacuums.
Noble and company had built the business to a peak of 300 employees in 2005 between offices in Springfield and Chicago, but that tally was cut in half by 2010 as client advertising budgets shrunk. It was down to almost 50 staff members at the time of the sale.
Over the years, the firm has spawned numerous startup agencies by marketers who honed their craft with Noble before venturing on their own, most notably Marlin Network, now the city’s largest agency and also owned by an out-of-state group.
The Gatesman transaction, terms of which were not disclosed, included 11 employees in Noble’s Springfield office and 36 in downtown Chicago. Noble retained a small, yet dear, portion of the portfolio, with plans to recharge the food segment under Noble’s The Food Channel brand and its CultureWaves in-house data curating service.
“It’s kind of hard to build new and keep the old alive,” Noble told Springfield Business Journal after the sale. “You lose your perspective on what’s important to you.”
Over the years, Noble and company are known for influencing chicken nuggets at McDonald’s, the “fourth meal” menu at Taco Bell and bacon sundaes at Burger King. Other client brands have been Borden, Chili’s, Uncle Ben’s and M&M’s.
The FoodChannel.com, relaunched in July. It now features article and video content in partnership with USA Today.
Gatesman, similar to Noble, is led by the name on its front door, CEO John Gatesman, and it bills about $10 million a year. Operating now as Gatesman-Noble, the firm leases the second floor of Noble’s Chesterfield Village building, as well as the Illinois office. Also amid the sale, seven-year CEO Keith Acuff was removed from his post.
6. Trump pitches tax breaks in Springfield
SPRINGFIELD, AUG. 30—Amid thousands of protestors and supporters alike, President Donald Trump made a visit to Springfield to speak in front of a crowd of 1,450 and debut his four principles for tax reform.
He first recommended simplifying the tax code and getting rid of complexities that benefit special interests and the wealthiest Americans – reporting more than 90 percent of citizens consult a professional during tax season.
He also shared his goals of making the American corporate tax rate more competitive among nations, lowering taxes on middle-class individuals, and attracting $3 trillion-$5 trillion in funds to the United States that he claimed are currently being held in other countries with preferable tax systems.
“Because of our high tax rate and horrible, outdated, bureaucratic rules, large companies that do business overseas will often park their profits offshore to avoid paying a high United States tax if the money is brought back home,” Trump said.
In late November, Trump returned to Missouri in the St. Louis suburbs to discuss how the GOP tax reform bill would help small-business owners and workers, in addition to middle-class families. Critics instead claimed reform would disproportionately favor the wealthy and corporations.
The U.S. Tax Cuts and Jobs Act also began moving through the House of Representatives in November, and business owners began turning to tax advisers for guidance, with the hopes they could plan for potential changes to tax laws in 2018 and make the best of 2017 with the time they had left.
“There are a lot of proposals within that tax bill that are very, very business friendly – especially large-business friendly,” said Edward House of Bohl, House & Samek CPAs. He noted lowering the maximum tax rate most affects the businesses with the highest profits. But Damien Martin, national tax assistant director at BKD LLP, said the changes to “pass through” corporations could have ramifications that could make waves throughout the business spectrum.
7. Retail centers take shape as national chains falter
SPRINGFIELD—As major brick-and-mortar retailers closed stores, two large shopping centers in Springfield opened to customers in 2017. And discount retailers are leading the activity.
Phase I of the $78.5 million west-side Springfield Plaza development wrapped up as Burlington Stores Inc., Ross Dress for Less, Shoe Show Inc.’s Shoe Dept. Encore and Petco Animal Supplies Inc. occupied 91,000 square feet.
Near West Bypass and Sunshine Street, Phase II of Springfield Plaza could begin this spring, said Tom Rankin, one of the developers behind the center.
Across town, developer Brad Thessing’s $10 million Glenstone Marketplace came to fruition after delays with the opening of Springfield’s first HomeGoods on Nov. 12. At the 100,000-square-foot 3333 S. Glenstone Ave. shopping center, Ohio retail chain Designer Shoe Warehouse signed on to open in 2018, following the planned January opening in the center for Colorado-based natural foods grocery chain Lucky’s Market.
Also, Menard Inc. broke ground on two stores on both sides of town.
Elsewhere in the area, companies showed signs of fatigue in the brick-and-mortar retail space.
Sears Holdings Corp. (Nasdaq:SHLD) closed the last of its three Springfield Kmart stores early in the year; Payless ShoeSource filed for bankruptcy and shuttered a store in Ozark; and Gordmans’ Springfield store was spared despite the company liquidating its assets.
Macy’s Inc. (NYSE:M) also chose to keep its Springfield store open while closing 68 others elsewhere.
8. Power up: Nixa home to state’s largest solar farm
NIXA, NOV. 14—On a foggy morning, Nixa flipped the switch on what’s billed as Missouri’s largest solar farm.
Spanning 72 acres, nearly 33,290 solar panels stretch across the south side of state Route 14, just west of town. Officials say the 7.9-megawatt farm is now partially powering Nixa homes and businesses.
Springfield-based Gardner Capital Inc.’s solar unit — and its hired contractor and operator, Lee’s Summit-based MC Power Cos. — broke ground in late June.
The farm has the ability to produce more than 15 million kilowatt hours per year, equal to about 9 percent of Nixa’s annual energy consumption. Through the solar farm agreement, Nixa will buy all of the generated power over a 25-year period.
Nixa is scheduled to pay Gardner Capital 4.87 cents per kWh in the first year, with rates escalating annually to 8.69 cents per kWh by 2043. According to a release from the city, that’s less than what it pays now through agreements with City Utilities of Springfield and the Southwestern Power Administration, meaning Nixa will realize $2.5 million in savings during the contract’s 25-year length.
It wasn’t an easy road, however.
The fate of the farm was in the hands of O’Fallon-based Solexus Development LLC, which signed a purchase power agreement with the city in mid-2015.
Nixa officials say trouble with funding, state and county taxes, permitting and easements contributed to the project faltering early on. The development work later transferred to Cypress Creek Renewables LLC, and by December 2016, a pitch was made to Gardner Capital to buy the job.
9. Glass Hall unveils $30M remake
SPRINGFIELD, OCT. 30—Hands-on learning is the name of the game in the renovated Glass Hall at Missouri State University.
Not only is it architecturally designed to feel like a “real-world” business environment, but the College of Business’ learning style also is evolving.
COB Dean Stephanie Bryant and Associate Dean David Meinert – who will become interim dean Jan. 1 – toured 10 business schools across the country for ideas. Their conclusion: a design that focuses on collaboration. Aiming for an environment that would encourage students’ communication and working together, the design includes gathering areas on every floor and a new “think lab” for consulting projects.
The more than $30 million renovation was constructed largely with funds donated by former Wal-Mart Stores Inc. president and CEO David Glass, an MSU alum. With 37,000 square feet of new space, Glass Hall now looks and feels more like a modern corporate office complex than a school.
It has seven collaboration rooms, five learning laboratories and an executive-style auditorium. On the top floor, a corner boardroom is outfitted with a massive oval table and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Enactus, a business club at the school, also now has an entrepreneurial lab to utilize, and a sales lab was created for MSU’s nationally ranked sales team.
Job placement is clearly a focus. The additional space has its own career center, with guidance counselors and six interview rooms where hiring representatives from businesses will talk to students about job opportunities immediately after graduation.
Meinert said 170 companies that recruited on campus last year for corporate employees are proof the COB’s students can compete with those from other universities nationwide. As of October, the COB had 5,511 students, including 770 graduate-level students. During the 2015-16 school year, MSU’s COB ranked 34th on AACSB’s list of the 521 largest business schools, with 4,532 undergrads, below University of Arkansas with 5,432 students and University of Missouri with 5,026.
10. Big changes debut on big screens
SPRINGFIELD—Adventure in theaters in 2017 wasn’t just limited to the big screen. Acquisitions, sales and new locations made it an action-packed year for the industry.
After 21 years of operation, the south-side Palace theater closed June 8. In March, Life360 Church was under contract to buy the discount theater building. Following a rezoning battle settled in July by Springfield City Council, it closed on the purchase. The deal for undisclosed terms with Chesterfield Village creator Dearborn Development Inc. finalized Aug. 9, and Life360 plans to relocate its Park Crest campus at 3581 S. Kansas Ave. to the Palace building.
Thirteen months after Alamo Drafthouse Cinema confirmed plans to enter Springfield, the Austin, Texas-based theater chain opened on a limited basis June 19 while employees were trained through June 24. This wasn’t the first targeted opening date. The theater initially planned to open in February, but construction challenges pushed the date back to spring and finally into June. The 55,000-square-foot former Campbell 16 Cine is the largest in the chain.
The downtown Regal College Stadium 14 theater could be under new ownership, as well. London-based Cineworld Group PLC entered into a definitive agreement to buy Knoxville, Tennessee-based Regal Entertainment Group in a deal valued at $5.9 billion, including debt. The downtown theater leases its building from developer Scott Tillman. If the buyout by Cineworld is approved, the transaction would mark the second time the Springfield theater has changed owners in four years.
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