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Opinion: Branding the Ozarks: We can make big ideas happen here

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Money follows demand. Looking at our neighbors in Oklahoma City and northwest Arkansas, we can see examples of what happens when people and businesses have no reason to invest in a place – and conversely, what happens when they do. Looking inward at Springfield and the Ozarks, are we missing out on cultural and economic expansion?

In 1991, United Airlines was evaluating where to build “the biggest industrial development project of the decade” – a $1 billion maintenance hub with over 1,000 high-salaried jobs. The airline had narrowed its selection to Oklahoma City and Indianapolis. OKC was desperate to win the business because the main driver of their economy, oil, had been losing value in the ’80s. Expectations were high as United described OKC as the most prepared, organized, professional, courteous and responsive.

Before making the final choice, United sent groups of managers and their spouses to visit OKC and Indianapolis and report back. Based on their reports, United chose Indianapolis and told then OKC Mayor Ron Norick that the airline simply couldn’t ask their employees to move to a place like Oklahoma City. Investment requires trust in a place, and the quality of life in OKC did not provide United with the confidence needed to invest.

This economic blow motivated OKC to take drastic measures to improve the city – and if you visit there today, you’ll experience a very different city from what United saw.

Northwest Arkansas was facing a similar challenge in the ’90s. According to media reports and demographic studies, Walmart, J.B. Hunt and Tyson were struggling to retain talent; many competitors were headquartered in larger cities that were more appealing to employees. The companies discovered new hires would move to NWA to build their resumes and then leave.

With a smaller population, the municipalities were limited in their ability to help improve talent retention, so the companies took charge. They got together and asked: What is one thing we can do to make NWA better? They chose the airport. Bigger runways would make it easier for larger airplanes to land, and a nicer terminal would make better first impressions. With $107 million in funds, the improvements began in 1995 and the airport opened in 1998.

This became their recipe. The private sector identified what key improvement would make the biggest impact, the public sector supported the initiative, and it got done. The highways were expanded. Downtown was improved. A world class art museum, Crystal Bridges, was created. Miles of soft trails for mountain biking were built, and Bentonville declared itself to be the Mountain Biking Capital of the World.

Intentional growth and public/private partnerships build a brand that people want to experience, and market demand attracts investment. Today, the population is up 6% the past two years, and the median household income is nearing $90,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The revitalizations of OKC and NWA are inspirational because they hint at a future we could experience here in the Ozarks. We’re better off than OKC was. We have the same amenities and more than NWA. All that’s missing is the intent to succeed.

Rather than passively allowing shows like Netflix’s “Ozark” to shape national perception of the Ozarks, it’s time to create our own narrative. Regional community leaders and municipalities around Springfield need to come together to cast an inspirational vision of our future – not just for the city, but for the region. Breaking out of our silos and beginning to act as a regional whole demonstrates bureaucratic pragmatism that appeals to businesses. An organization would need to form to act as a private-public mediator and lead the implementation of the regional framework; without this steering organization, progress will stall – someone needs to be responsible for completing initiatives.

A strong identity invites investment because the market follows demand. If we give ourselves permission to feel proud of the Ozarks, we can turn our quality of life from good to great.

Marcus Aton is owner of Aton Development LLC and a founding board member of Better Block SGF. He can be reached at atonmarcus@gmail.com.

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