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Economic Development Outlook: Sarah Kerner

City of Springfield Director of Economic Development

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Seeing development occur from a city perspective for three years, Sarah Kerner has an inside track to the evolution of Springfield.

2019 Projection: To combat low unemployment, businesses will have to connect with local universities to convince more graduates to stay in Springfield.

SBJ: Unemployment numbers have been low throughout 2018. Where do you think it will settle out next year?
Kerner: I would expect it’s going to continue. It’s very difficult for businesses when employment is so low. It will be really interesting to see how that pressure makes businesses adapt. Will they adjust compensation or benefits? Will they try to upscale their existing workforce for these additional jobs they need that require different training? They could take a lot of different runs at that. They’re going to have to do something.

SBJ: Where do you think we’ll see the most development in Springfield next year?
Kerner: We’ve had 10 years of economic growth – it feels like we’ve got a lot of things that are poised to be developed. Would it be wishful thinking to say Kearney Street? We’ve already had our first project go through with the expansion at the DoubleTree and we’ve had a lot of people talking to us, so it depends. I guess if you look at development follows incentives, you could look at maps and say, “This may be it,” but I’m not sure incentives make someone do a project. It’s kind of like icing on the cake.

SBJ: We’ve seen a boom in student housing of $185 million in the last decade, and we have planned developments like the $500 million The Ridge at Ward Branch in south Springfield. Are we going to see more projects on a larger scale like these?
Kerner: The Ridge is almost 100 acres. We don’t have 100-acre sites just lying around to spare, so that’s a pretty unique project we’re not going to see replicated across the city. What’s kind of interesting about it though, which I think we are seeing more of, is there is development all around that site. It’s kind of filling in a gap, so I think that’s what we’re seeing now. The student housing one is interesting. I keep thinking we’ve seen the end of it, but people keep calling saying they think they want to do more.

SBJ: How will new market tax credits and opportunity zones be utilized in 2019?
Kerner: The IDEA Commons project with Missouri State University and The Vecino Group is a high-profile, big project that is trying to get new market tax credits. I’m very hopeful they will get them. We’re certainly an eligible community to use them. The nice thing is there’s a lot of overlap where new markets and opportunity zones can be used because both are based on distressed community designations. I have definitely been getting questions about opportunity zones, but there’s still a lot of unknowns. I think people are inquiring and figuring out how the program works. I would say early investment is probably going to be local and will probably be businesses investing in themselves. It’s not a program; it’s a tax benefit. I don’t think it’s the city’s role where they should invest their money. Our role is to make fertile ground. We got the designations to the extent we need to help local businesses do what they need to be able to do to receive investment.

SBJ: What hurdles do you see for economic development in 2019?
Kerner: It appears that neighborhoods are getting more active and vocal as developments are coming forward for approval, which I actually think is a positive process. I think it’s helpful for City Council to hear from the residents who are the most impacted by these projects. The comprehensive plan is a huge public engagement process, and the good thing is it’s not about any one development project. It’s more about how we want the city to develop and how we want to use the land. I’m hoping we can build on this energized citizen engagement we have right now and get some really great input into that plan.

SBJ: Where can economic development improve in 2019?
Kerner: I would like to see more focus on higher-wage jobs. I think sometimes we can get tunnel vision on job numbers without delving into what that means. That goes hand-in-hand with workforce development attraction because you can’t get high-wage job companies to come unless you can show that they will be able to fill their jobs when they get here. We have to have the people with the right training, bring them together and help all of our citizens.

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