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Economic Outlook Conference presents half-glass scenario

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While the jobs picture in America is still much dimmer than it was before the worst recession in 70 years, the country still holds a powerful position in the world as more companies adapt to an increasingly global marketplace. That’s the message Ted Abernathy, executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board, shared with a couple hundred attendees of the eighth annual Economic Outlook Conference, presented Sept. 15 by the Springfield Business Development Corp. at the Ramada Oasis Convention Center.

“The U.S. economy is not wonderful, but it is also not terrible,” Abernathy said. “The glass is about half full, and it’s about half empty.”

Abernathy’s North Carolina-based public policy think tank provides economic development research and advice for 13 southern states. The board specializes in technology and innovation, talent, civic engagement, globalization, alternative energy and leadership. At the conference, he pointed to data collected by the organization that paints a somewhat murky picture of what he called a stagnant economy.

The morning conference also featured two panel discussions with local leaders talking about the challenges and opportunities businesses face in the Springfield region.

Panel talk
Members of the conference’s Development Community Panel expressed optimism about the opportunities for growth in the area.

Larry Snyder, CEO of Ozark-based construction contractor Larry Snyder & Co., said the local construction industry has been hit hard by the recent recession but should be poised for a rebound as more companies look to expand or move into the Springfield market. For example, in 2006, 7,480 construction workers labored on projects in Greene County, compared to 5,419 currently, Snyder said.

Banker Jan Baumgartner said Springfield First Community Bank has done its part to help the local economy with $190 million in loans distributed since it opened in October 2008. The executive vice president said some 400 new rules bankers are navigating in the Dodd-Frank Act have been confusing and costly, but increases in Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. coverage have helped to increase savings, which is good for her industry.

Jeff Childs, senior adviser for Sperry Van Ness/Rankin Co. LLC, said the increased scrutiny by lenders on developers and businesses has been tough, but necessary, and he sees a bright future for the area.

“Whether the glass is half full or half empty, I’m drinking it,” Childs said. “There are a lot of opportunities in Springfield.”

An official of Mercy Research & Development pointed to its partnership with Missouri State University and the Jordan Valley Innovation Center as a potential job creator.

“I see Springfield as a big place for medical device manufacturing in the future,” said Mercy Research and Development Director Keela Davis, a panelist in the targeted industries discussion.

Davis said many of the medical devices Mercy R&D has been creating since 2007 are nearly ready to be licensed.

Steven Smith, general manager of Expedia’s Springfield Contact Center, said Expedia has grown its Springfield employee base from 275 to 800 in recent years with the help of the chamber and locally elected officials. He said it is looking now to possibly add 300 to 400 new jobs in the area if it determines that it can find many qualified workers for entry level and management positions. The cost of living, and subsequently the cost to hire workers, Smith said, has been most attractive to corporate officials in Bellevue, Wash.

“The cost of doing business here is great,” Smith said. “We’re a cheap date in Springfield.”  

Big picture
In 2009, the U.S. economy lost 8.5 million jobs, Abernathy said, and even though 44 out of the 50 states have reported job growth in the last 12 months, it would take 12 years to gain back the ground lost during that time.

“From a jobs standpoint, we’ve got a ridiculously big hole to climb out of,” Abernathy said.  

He said U.S. exports, up 4.2 percent since January 2009, are a bright spot looking forward, and the U.S. trade imbalance, currently at -3.3 percent, is improving as a result.

Still, job growth is struggling to keep pace with population growth. The unemployment rate, roughly 9 percent across the U.S., should perhaps not be surprising considering it takes 125,000 new jobs every month just to keep the unemployment rate from growing.

Businesses are saving more, however, with $2 trillion saved by the country’s top 2,000 companies in 2010. And they are more profitable, too. Last year, companies saw profits rise by 69 percent – both good signs for the future.

Abernathy said more people are being drawn to metropolitan areas, a good sign for a regional center such as Springfield, but midsize metropolitan areas are also where a majority of the poorest Americans live.

Overall, however, the U.S. is still well positioned when compared to other countries. With a “culture of innovation” still prevalent and a relatively strong middle class – 91 percent of the population is middle class by global standards – the U.S. will remain a player in the increasingly global economy for the foreseeable future, he said.

“I’m not worried at all about our standing in the world for the next 50 years,” Abernathy said.[[In-content Ad]]

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