from the brink
Roundtable brings jobs,
people back to northwest Missouri
by Jim McCarty
There was a time
when the motto of northwest Missouri might have been “Last one out
turn off the lights.” Everyone, it seemed, had given up on the region
as the greatest exodus of farm families since the Great Depression left
for greener pastures. So great was the region’s plight that one
university professor suggested giving the area back to the deer.
Hendee of Cameron and Jean Othic of Warrensburg talk to a prospect
at the National Plastics Exposition in Chicago. Working together,
members of the N.W. Roundtable have brought more than 4,000 new jobs
to northwest Missouri.
were determined people in northwest Missouri who never gave up. One of
those was Jack Briggs, a certified economic development specialist who
went to work for N.W. Electric Power Cooperative in 1988. Briggs started
a group called the N.W. Roundtable that has been the catalyst for a tremendous
When Briggs, manager
of business development at the Cameron-based transmission cooperative,
came to N.W. Power there were only two economic development people working
in the area. His first task was to get more economic development people
at work helping their communities.
“One of my first
things to do was to go around and say, ‘Hey, you guys need to diversify,’”
Briggs says. “A lot of communities would say, ‘we’ve
had a bad farm year this year or maybe two bad farm years but next year
we are going to get well again.’”
For a century the
region’s economy revolved around agriculture, Briggs says. It was
a tough sell convincing area leaders times had changed.
“Very few people
can make a living on small-acreage farms anymore,” Briggs laments.
“It used to be everyone had a few cows, chickens, a milk cow and
they raised a garden. That doesn’t happen anymore. He goes to town
Mama may go to town
to work. They’ve done away with their livestock, may have CRP land
and they go to Wal-Mart for their groceries instead of the garden.”
When farm prices plummeted
in the late ’70s and early ’80s displaced farmers began leaving
the area in droves. In some areas population dropped by two thirds as
farm families moved to the cities looking for work. Those who remained
could not provide enough tax support to fund essential services, let alone
stem the tide of outmigration.
“We had situations
where some counties were going under,” recalls Briggs. “We
had some counties that were down to one or two days a week and talking
about closing entirely. It was unprecedented.”
While leaders struggled
for answers to the region’s plight, Briggs invited the area’s
full-time economic development specialists to form the N.W. Roundtable.
“We didn’t have a choice,” says Briggs. “We had
to do something or die.”
The roundtable has
about 36 members, representing electric co-ops, cities, counties, regional
planning agencies and others in 25 counties.
“The N.W. Roundtable
educates together, markets together and we try to solve each other’s
problems,” Briggs says. N.W., through the roundtable, offers scholarships
to those full-time employees who go for additional training. It also hosts
lunches at all of the meetings and has established a revolving loan fund
of more than $1 million to assist their efforts.
One of the problems
those working in the field discovered is their budgets were too small
to compete with larger areas in the cutthroat world of industrial recruitment.
A small town was lucky to have funding for personnel let alone a marketing
budget or funds to establish an industrial park. But by joining forces
and marketing a region, small budgets became much larger.
The group applied
for a USDA grant to fund a labor study. It was the first of its kind and
has served as a model for other groups. The next step will be a “skills
study” that will show not just how many workers are available but
what skills they might have to offer potential employers.
“We had to find
ways to market effectively at very little cost,” Briggs says. “We
are now in our third month of an electronic marketing effort that is very
all sorts of marketing ideas are a possibility. Three years ago the roundtable’s
presence at a plastics show in Chicago helped land a new industry that
located in St. Joseph, Briggs says. This year they returned to Chicago
and this time Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell went with them.
Here they emphasized
not only the high education level and availability of the area workforce,
but also low electric rates and the other factors important in company
Maxwell joined them
in a luncheon where they talked with site consultants and commercial real
estate leaders about northwest Missouri. Maxwell was also there to gain
insight into how to bring more jobs and development to Missouri.
suffered tremendous job losses due to the economic downturn,” Maxwell
says. “We’ve come together to try to put people back to work
by forming partnerships that will help improve Missouri’s ability
to attract businesses and jobs. This regional effort is really innovative.”
Rather than competing
for scarce industry, members of the group market northwest Missouri to
prospects, believing that what benefits one town benefits them all. Briggs
says that mentality is unusual.
no group exactly like ours in the United States,” he says. “We
hired a consultant to do a best practices study for us in the hopes they
could find other groups like ours. There are none. A lot of it has to
do with turf battles. Out here we have a group that doesn’t have
a core metro area in it. It’s all rural communities.”
is paying big dividends. Briggs estimates more than 4,000 new jobs have
come to northwest Missouri. The population decreases of a decade ago have
turned into increases. “What a wonderful change that is,”
More jobs attracting
more people to the area led to a new problem — a critical shortage
of housing. The group tackled this dilemma by hosting the first-ever rural
housing summit in the state — and then a second one that attracted
people from four states. Bruce Hensley, North Central Missouri Electric
Cooperative’s manager of community and government relations, turned
himself into the state’s leading authority on rural housing.
He also helped launch
the cooperative’s Auburn Hill housing program, a unique subdivision
located near the cooperative’s headquarters in Milan.
The subdivision broke
ground in many ways: It was the first truly rural subdivision in the nation.
It was the first such project funded by a Community Development Block
Grant from the state. And Hensley managed to swing an unprecedented waiver
from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that let more
working families qualify for home ownership.
the project provided a model other communities can follow without the
struggles Hensley faced. His efforts have led to a tripling of the energy
sold by North Central Missouri Electric Co-op.
Terry Rumery at Farmers’
Electric Co-op in Chillicothe has led the way in the completion of two
industrial parks. They now include seven manufacturers and seven other
businesses with a total of more than 1,000 new jobs. The investment in
those new businesses approaches $100 million.
Projects like these
have brought northwest Missouri back from the brink. But Briggs says the
work will never be complete. “It’s a never-ending deal,”
he says. “As we get people better trained in what they do we will
get more aggressive. We’ll have to work harder, but the pendulum
swing is back to rural. People are running from crime, they want to get
back to the quality of life.”