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Opinion: Growing population, infrastructure win in eco devo game

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Economic development boils down to creating a place where businesses thrive and invest, in turn providing good jobs for people who commit to live and work there. Over time, constants like infrastructure investment and quality education are always fundamental to success. But there are economic variables that we respond to in real time, as well.

For economic developers in the Springfield region, there are currently two important focal points as we work to build on the assets we have to grow quality jobs: our workforce and the economy.

1. Development of real estate. Available real estate is still a serious obstacle to business expansion and attraction. Our industrial and office market vacancy rates remain near full capacity – at 3.7% and 3.6%, respectively, according to commercial real estate data firm CoStar Group Inc.

For example, the quality of our workforce and training resources, among other factors, made Springfield a contender for a recent attraction project. While the details are confidential, leaders from an outside company visited our region late last month to look for sites, but we ultimately lost the opportunity because of a lack of appropriate real estate options. Simply put, our workforce systems and infrastructure investments won’t be able to seal the deal on this project because the immediate need of a rail-served industrial site can’t be met in our region. The potential for hundreds of quality manufacturing jobs and more than $30 million in new capital investment is moving on to other locations.

This isn’t uncommon. Our economic development team is responding to an increasing number of leads, but we often don’t move beyond that due to a lack of sizable buildings or development-ready sites. A 300-acre rail park, a 250,000-square-foot speculative industrial building or a 50,000-square-foot modern office building would have our team on the field more often, competing for economic development wins. Public-sector infrastructure investment for these sites is critical, and private- sector risk to construct them is just beginning to ramp up.

One of the hottest sites in our region right now is a great example of this. The city of Republic, Greene County and City Utilities invested in road and utility infrastructure, and now Rankin Development LLC has the confidence to build large-scale spec industrial buildings. It is working. McLane Co. Inc., Mercy’s ROi and Lew’s Fishing all chose to grow in our region because of these options. We continue to submit these spec buildings as competitive options for leads.

2. Place, people and jobs. Author and community developer Peter Kageyama has come to Springfield twice this year to talk about the importance of cultivating a unique sense of place. It is crucial to continually make significant investments in the livability of our community and also to empower “bottom-up” community development. This allows co-creators, as Kageyama aptly calls them, to develop “love notes” that endear the city more to both adults and children. This dynamic nurtures a stronger emotional connection between people and place, a connection that draws in more talent while also retaining and engaging those already here to build an even stronger community.

When this type of grassroots energy is paired with the nuts and bolts of visioning and strategic planning, the result is effective placemaking that spurs the growth of our working population to fill, expand and attract more quality jobs. It is encouraging to hear Springfield Mayor Ken McClure identify “quality of place” as a top priority in his recent State of the City address. To win jobs that businesses want to create, Springfield’s regional population must grow faster. As the city begins its comprehensive planning process, it is important to remember that if our place is desirable, welcoming and growing substantially, then quality, higher-paying jobs are much more likely to follow.

I ask this: What investments and economic catalysts will make this a more desirable place to live, attracting and retaining college students, young professionals, experienced executives and tradespeople? Our Community Leadership Visits offer examples. Boise, Idaho, very intentionally built onto its natural beauty even in the urban setting, developing recreation opportunities, beautifying entryways to the city and major corridors, and completing a connected trail system. In Greenville, South Carolina, an investment in downtown and placemaking uncovered a waterfall, spurring billions of dollars in private development.

We can build on our own natural assets – uncovering Jordan Valley Creek downtown, enhancing natural assets like the James River and Lake Springfield, connecting our greenway trails and developing recreational assets right next to our population centers. We need to think boldly about the investments we want to make to ensure vibrancy and growth.

Business community engagement in the city’s planning process will be vital to helping this place thrive over the next 20 years.

Ryan Mooney is senior vice president of economic development for the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. He can be reached at ryan@springfieldchamber.com.

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