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Opinion: When preparation meets opportunity for a city identity

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I just can’t stop thinking about my first visit to Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium. It was truly incredible.

One week after its opening, and with that transformative experience very fresh on our minds, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce took 80 community leaders to Boise, Idaho, for our annual Community Leadership Visit. As we learned firsthand about Boise’s key tipping points for success, our conversations repeatedly returned to the game-changing private investment that had opened a week earlier in Springfield – and what an economic catalyst it could be for Springfield’s future.

It’s been reported the total project cost for Wonders of Wildlife is in the ballpark of $300 million. This is an unprecedented investment in our community, as it would be in most peer communities across the country. I looked back at three years of annual reports from the Springfield Business Development Corp., which tracks the investment and income that results from business expansion and attraction projects the chamber and our regional partners support each year. Even aggregated over three years, our community has not seen capital expenditures at this level. The construction of the museum and aquarium already has made a significant economic impact. The long-term potential economic impact of a project of this magnitude going forward simply cannot be overstated.

What if Walt Disney had built Disneyland in his hometown, rather than California? In a very real sense, that’s what has happened for us in Springfield. We are so fortunate Johnny Morris chose to bring his passion for conservation to life in his hometown. But the most successful communities do not rely merely on good fortune. The most successful communities build on these singular events when they happen. The game-changing opportunity this represents for our community is exceedingly rare. As a community, we should fully embrace it with a shared vision for Springfield’s future that cultivates a stronger sense of place.

Successful communities we’ve visited, like Boise and many others, have put tremendous focus on establishing their identity. The Boise community took a simple approach: Decide who we aspire to be, say it clearly and then become it. They identified and built on their strengths. Their investments and projects were always closely tethered to that shared vision.

Springfield can be the most vibrant metropolitan area in Missouri, where individuals, families and businesses thrive. As part of a chamber-initiated visioning process, volunteers in our community have been seeking input and encouraging our community to dream big about Springfield’s future. The themes we hear are remarkably consistent, and it is helping to shape a vision that can inspire future projects and initiatives that help us be that city we aspire to be. These five themes are consistently emerging to describe a future that could be truly special:

1. Outdoors Everywhere. We can enhance the vibrancy of our community by weaving elements of the area’s natural beauty throughout neighborhoods, centers of activity and the urban core.

2. Economic Catalysts. We can partner to deliver strategic projects that spark significant investment, create economic growth and attract quality jobs into our region.

3. Community Infrastructure. We can invest in well-designed facilities, inspiring places and robust infrastructure that connect our lives and create exceptional community amenities.

4. Workforce and Talent Pipeline. We can create the best education network in the state, which produces and strives to retain talented, innovative employees and creates opportunities for people and businesses to prosper.

5. Safe, Healthy and Welcoming Community. We can ensure an inclusive and welcoming community that prioritizes investments in public safety and health.

The vision is just beginning to take shape, but these themes describe a uniquely Springfield version of what we have seen work so well in on-the-move communities over the years. In past Community Leadership Visits, we’ve seen commonalities between the key tipping points of successful communities. They sustain their growth and lift their quality of life from a shared vision – led by the private sector – that guides the community’s projects, initiatives and practices to the same destination.

Roman philosopher Lucius Seneca is credited with the famous observation, “Luck is what happens when preparation and opportunity meet.”

In Springfield, Morris has provided us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As we pursue a shared community vision for Springfield’s future, built on years of data-driven preparation, his timing could not be more perfect. One day, future generations in Springfield will look back at this tipping point in our history. What they say about it will have much to do with our preparedness as a community to maximize the special opportunity we have been given.

Matt Morrow is president and CEO of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at matt@springfieldchamber.com.

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