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Vibrancy of city focus of new department

Amanda Ohlensehlen takes on Economic Vitality lead role

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Springfield’s Department of Economic Vitality is up and running, with director Amanda Ohlensehlen taking the helm March 28.

Ohlensehlen’s background is in economic development and sustainable tourism, and she sees her position as furthering the placemaking priority set by the city.

“We’re balancing a triple bottom line,” she said. “We’re looking at the economy as well as culture and the environment, and really how all three of those things can be married together.”

The department was formed to separate the city’s economic development function from the Planning & Development Department, according to City Manager Jason Gage’s explanation to Springfield City Council. Council passed the ordinance last summer.

The department was established to eliminate confusion that might exist between the recruitment role of economic development from the regulatory role of Planning and Development, Gage said at the time.

Ohlensehlen, a Missouri native, comes to Springfield from New Bern, North Carolina, a city of 30,000 residents that she served as economic and community development manager. Before that, she was the economic development coordinator and director of the tourist and event center in Havelock, North Carolina, a city of just over 20,000.

Ohlensehlen and her husband both hail from Mound City in northwest Missouri, and they have two young sons. She said she and her husband are thrilled to be back in the Show-Me State.

“This is where we want to make our home and raise our family,” she said.

Ohlensehlen said this is an exciting time for Springfield, for which the U.S. Census Bureau reported a population of 167,000 in 2020.

“There is a strong collaborative spirit,” she said. “Springfield is a great place to be. It’s a hub of activity for the region.”

In short, according to Ohlensehlen, it’s an easy place to promote.

“It’s beautiful, it’s vibrant, with such a great connection to the outdoors,” she said. “There are so many assets. From the perspective of people looking in, they’re wowed by Springfield.”

Springfieldians, on the other hand, are humble, Ohlensehlen said.

“We may not recognize all of those strengths,” she said.

Cora Scott, director of public information and civic engagement for the city, agreed.

“This is a Midwest kind of thing,” she said. “We haven’t been as braggadocious as we could be, but hopefully, this is the dawn of a new era where everyone’s willing to say Springfield is a great place to be. I want everyone to move here and work here and play here.”

There are some challenges, too, that the office will have to address – like workforce shortages and competition with other communities for businesses seeking a place to locate.

The new department has seven staff members with Ohlensehlen and the former economic development team for the city.

“It’s a dynamite team – a lot of go-getters,” Scott said.

One go-getter, former economic development director Sarah Kerner, has stepped down from her role with the city to take a position at accounting firm BKD LLP, where she will serve as assistant general counsel. 

Kerner told Springfield Business Journal the economic development director title was converted to assistant director of economic vitality via City Council action, and this was confirmed by a city spokesperson. A search is underway for her replacement.

The city declined to disclose how many people applied for the Economic Vitality director role.

Ohlensehlen said the Economic Vitality Department role will be holistic.

“We want to look at the vibrancy and vitality of the city,” she said. “Our efforts very much involve working collaboratively with the community to ensure that we’re getting the right feedback and taking the right steps when we look at growth and development.”

That means looking beyond locating incentives and programs for prospective businesses, although that is a key role of the office. It also means ensuring the community has what it needs for businesses to see it as a good fit, and that includes things like affordable housing, according to Ohlensehlen.

In addition to addressing the needs of workers, the office is engaged with growing the workforce as well.

“We do work closely with the Department of Workforce Development,” Ohlensehlen said.

The office will work to attract new investment in the city while also supporting entrepreneurship from within Springfield and supporting business startups that may already be here, Ohlensehlen said.

“We also want to preserve the strong manufacturing sector that is here, while attracting new investment to the region, as well as supporting the retail trade and tourism markets,” she said.

The department represents an investment for the city, with a non-payroll budget of $104,000 for 2021-22. The general fund payroll for the fiscal year is $384,000 for four and a half full-time equivalents, with the remainder of the payroll funded by grants, according to Scott, who said the figures reflect both salaries and benefits.

The budgeted amount for the director’s salary and benefits, as established in the June 2021 council bill, is $163,300.

Development vs. vitality
The Economic Vitality Department was the brainchild of Deputy City Manager Maurice Jones, whose background is in economic development.

Jones said council priorities have economic vitality as a focus point, so it made sense to establish a department.

“We’re pulling it from underneath of planning and giving it more of a spotlight, a focus, a higher profile,” he said. “This really spoke to the direction the mayor and council wanted to go in.”

Jones said economic development covers a broad swath, and the discipline has morphed from chasing smokestacks (“I’m old school,” Jones said) to establishing quality of place.

“You go and visit a community, like Chicago or Tulsa, and you don’t go because you want to visit a packing plant. You go there for the experience,” Jones said. “How do we create a positive experience, not just for those who visit the community, but for those who live here as well?”

Jones said the Department of Economic Vitality will continue to be aggressive in connecting opportunities with resources.

He also noted the department dovetails with other city offices, and it will work closely with Building Development Services, Environmental Services, the Springfield Art Museum, Public Works and Parks and Recreation.

“It augments all those types of functions for purposes of making them better,” he said. “This is not going to be a stand-alone department. It’s going to help other functions and add extra quality to them as well.”

When asked if he knew of similar city departments in Missouri, Jones said he did not, but added, “There’s nothing new under the sun.

“I’m sure it’s been done other places, but how we do it here is going to make it unique to us.”

The city of Fayetteville, Arkansas, has an Economic Vitality Department whose website says it focuses on business attraction, retention and expansion, as well as workforce development and entrepreneurial support.

An Economic Vitality Program in Boulder, Colorado, seems similar to the vision for the Springfield office, with its stated goals of fostering an environment for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship while supporting businesses and cultivating a skilled workforce.

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