One of the simple things that I enjoy in life is a drive out in the country. While I have become attuned to living in a large metro area, I have always been drawn to rural places.
This is where my gaze shifts to the lay of the land and I begin to marvel at the beauty of it all. Out in the country, my body seems to slow down and I find myself listening, smelling and seeing. I am calmed.
For a time when I was a boy, my family lived on the outskirts of Springfield, Mo. It was then and there where I became the great explorer. I was always traipsing through woods and fields and developed certain skills as a result. For example, I soon learned to recognize game trails where animals traveled.
Still, I could not have been all that observant. I remember walking head-on into a low-hanging hornet’s nest (the inhabitants got their revenge) and nearly stepping on a coiled rattlesnake. But I lived to survive and I soon knew that I wanted to be outside exploring with my trusty BB gun in hand in the mold of Lewis and Clark or Fremont.
Fifty years later, I still like to be outside and away from commercial glut, breathing better air and gazing on pastoral, rolling landscapes interspersed with woods. This past week, I traversed such ground in Missouri, and it only confirmed what I knew from my childhood, that this was and is a beautiful place.
Is that It?
“Pretty country” is how I described my first impressions to economic developers who gathered at a resort Lake of the Ozarks for an event billed as “Lakeside with the Locators.” I’m sure they wanted something a little more in-depth from me, one of eight site selection consultants who were invited to attend the event.
At the very least, my audience wanted me to recognize that Missouri is a low-cost, pro-business place in comparison to much of the country and offering certain transportation amenities that are lacking elsewhere. And I believe that. I really do.
But I must have dashed their hopes by offering up that they lived in “pretty country.” I mean, come on, Dean, you’re not a tourist here.
Actually, that’s not all I said. During break-out sessions, I spoke about how I approached the site selection process and gave my views on trends in the automotive and food processing industry sectors.
I was also a co-speaker, with Chicago-based Sarah Raehl, of Deloitte Consulting, at the opening session of the Missouri Economic Development Council’s annual meeting. I think I told them that the robots were plotting our demise in this new digital machine age that we are entering. So I hope I provided some nugget of information that the economic developers could take home with them.
But I know that I kept looking out the window, wanting to be outside in that pretty country.
Cruising with Flat Harry
So they took me out on a boat at dusk. And it was a heck of boat, with I think three bedrooms, and three or four bathrooms. Out on the boat, I had good conversations with Chris Chung with the Missouri Partnership, who earlier in that morning explained the competitive advantages of Missouri.
Out on the boat, I stared at shorelines crammed with multi-million-dollar second homes, no doubt mostly from the well heeled of St. Louis and Kansas City.
But probably the biggest thing for me during the evening yacht cruise was meeting Flat Harry. I had my picture taken with him. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, red shorts, blue shoes and a yellow hat, the 33rd president of the United States from Independence, Mo., was the life of the party. He didn’t say a word, almost unheard of for any politician, but there he was – pasted on a six-inch stick, smiling and making us all feel good.
If you want to see a picture of Flat Harry, posing with site selectors Minah Hall, of Chicago-based True Partners, and Tim Feemster, of Dallas-based Foremost Quality Logistics, and me, go to this link: https://www.facebook.com/flatharry123 Thank you, Jodi Krantz of Independence Economic Development, for introducing us to him.
Many thanks to the sponsors of Lakeside with the Locators — Cuba Development Group; Economic Development Center of St. Charles County; Missouri Partnership; Springfield Regional Economic Partnership and the St. Louis Regional Chamber. Kudos to Lori Becklenberg of the St. Louis Regional Chamber for her work in making the event a success.
My Stump Speeches
But my trip to Missouri would only get more interesting as I left Lake of the Ozarks to head 125 miles north into the four-county region as represented by the Moberly Area Economic Development Corporation. This was country for working people in the very heart of the nation. It smacked of Norman Rockwell, and as I would learn “the place to be.”
There I gave a series of three PowerPoint presentations to stakeholders within the region — one at breakfast in Booneville, one at lunch in Monroe City and one at a dinner in Moberly before the MAEDC board. My presentation was called “A Consultant’s View: How Communities Compete in a Site Selection Process.”
I think my talks were received reasonably well as not a single roll was hurled in my direction. Besides outlining some of the main factors considered during the site selection process, I emphasized how a regional approach to economic development served communities best. My message on that point was illustrated by a slide featuring a photograph of stacked boxes of boneless pork rectums. Well, I guess you had to be there.
I also hit home on the point that if a community or region should always engage in a program of business retention and expansion (BR&E), as most jobs are created by existing industry and not through the industry recruitment. Still, recruitment is important and if communities are to compete, they must have product, be that buildings and/or sites.
In Between Stuffings
In between my presentations and meal stuffings –folks in Missouri are hearty eaters and their roasted pork steaks are incredible — my hosts, MAEDC President Corey Mehaffy and David Gaines, vice president, spent an entire day showing me buildings and sites in Randolph, Cooper, Monroe and Howard counties.
Some of these available buildings and sites virtually fronted Interstate 70, the first interstate highway project in the United States. Whereas others were more isolated, a good deal more than 10 miles away from the interstate or U.S. 63, which served as a de facto interstate in the region as it was a divided, four-lane highway offering good trucking time running north into Iowa.
A few more words on I-70. This interstate, the fifth longest in the country, approximately traces the path of U.S. Route 40 (and also the old National Road) east of the Rocky Mountains, linking Baltimore to Denver. It ends or starts depending on your point of view in Utah. Sections of I-70 in Missouri claim to be the first interstate in the country.
The four-county region also is also served by three Class I railroads, Norfolk Southern, BNSF and UP, offering direct rail links to river ports on both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Both the St. Louis and Kansas City international airports are about a two-hour drive away.
Star Wars on the Highways
This is work country, where county commissioners are excused from meetings because they are “out in the fields.” I for one cannot think of a better reason to miss a meeting.
During my travels throughout these rural counties, I came up on farm equipment motoring along the highways that resembled something out of Star Wars. Even my hosts were perplexed by some of the strange machines that we encountered.
But it was also apparent that the Great Recession had left its mark, as there were places within the region where people were under pressure. The mayor of Monroe City lamented how much middle-class wealth in his community had evaporated over the years since he had been a boy growing up there. He told about how his town lost two major employers within months after first taking office. Talk about a trial by fire.
In Fayette, I saw a spec building, albeit built with low ceilings, that had never been occupied in its 17 or 18 years. In Paris, which had a beautiful historic courthouse, I learned of a population decline of 22 percent.
Still, I was encouraged and impressed when I learned from a city official that Paris was “the center of the universe.” I did not know this, but I do now.
Indeed, I was encouraged and impressed throughout my visit. Missouri is a hybrid. It’s on the doorstep of both the Midwest and the South, showing cultural aspects of both. Although I lived in Missouri only a short time, I believe that I reflect Missouri to the degree that I am also a hybrid, half Southern and half Midwestern.
Missouri is the Show-Me State and let me tell you, I got showed, from cruising on a boat with Flat Harry to shaking calloused hands that had come from the fields.
The night before I was to begin my community tour of the MAEDC’s region, I discovered that I had left the power cord to my laptop at home. David Gaines asked if he could take my laptop to see if he could get a chord for it.
I gave it to him thinking “lots of luck” but within an hour he was back at my door with laptop and cord in hand. That can-do spirit is alive and well in Missouri.
Did I tell you that it was pretty country?
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Plano, Texas —http://www.barberadvisors.com He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or email@example.com
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