Dean Barber

Archive for November, 2013|Monthly archive page

Lost But Not Forgotten: A State Strikes Back

In Economic Development, Site Selection on November 24, 2013 at 5:30 am

Any adult with walking around sense knows it true – that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

I am paraphrasing, because the original prose comes from a Robert Burns’ poem  “To a Mouse,” which read: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” Translation: We will mess up.

In virtually every state in this country, elected officials have stood at podiums to announce wonderful economic development projects that would never subsequently happen. In their defense, they believed what they said to be true and accurate, even if their news conferences were hastily convened.

But projects blow up for a variety of reasons. Sometimes both sides – the company considering the community for the future investment and sometimes the community itself – have not thought things clear out. And when there is a  lack of due diligence and study, plans do go awry.

That Which Never Came

Sometimes my gut, based on my experiences, immediately tells me these are shaky propositions at best. I recall the Sprinter project some years ago being announced in Georgia when then Daimler Chrysler remained ominously quiet. Then there was that vaunted Chinese MG car project in Oklahoma. I seem to remember a bio-based jet fuels project that was supposed to happen in Natchez, Miss.

This past summer, I saw the remnants of a failed and highly publicized project in Moberly, Mo. A Chinese-owned company had actually started construction on what was to be an artificial sweetener factory. State and local officials had provided bond financing and incentives worth $17.6 million. But the company defaulted on its bond payments, and an unfinished shell is all that remains.

I have lost track on the number of announced solar projects that started with a bang and only to end with non-start fizzle. Mississippi and Tennessee had their share of those.

In virtually all these projects, there was a degree of confidence that these projects would happen, which is why they were announced (or leaked to the press) in the first place. But in many cases, the professional economic developers knew the announcements to be premature.

Politicians Do What They Do

But anxious elected officials all too often want to pull that cake out of the oven before it is done. They love to take to a stage to announce projects, especially when significant job creation is involved. For many politicians, project announcements represent their own job security, a reason for the voters to keep them in office.

In short, they hope to take credit, because that is who they are. It’s part of their DNA. More often than not, when these announcements do take place, the economic developers who worked the project, stand off to the side and politely clap. It comes with the territory.

Egg Splattered Faces

Our mentioned examples are not intended to embarrass, merely point out. Again, there is plenty of scorched earth all over this land due to announced projects that went sour. Most of us have had egg on our face at one time or the other. I know I have.

A certain Canadian Tier Two automotive supplier prominently comes to mind. While their manufacturing operations did come to fruition, they did not last long, less than a year. That’s not because of any failings of the community, but rather because of gross mismanagement on the part of the company, which was eventually dissolved. Still, I feel partly to blame.

In the world of mice and men, stuff happens.

An Indictment in Alabama

But usually criminal charges do not result from such botched affairs. That is a rarity. However, it happened this past week in Alabama, where a grand jury indicted the CEO of the Canadian firm National Steel Car on securities fraud charges involving a project that never came to be.

Now I cannot recall of a single case of criminal charges being filed because a company did not do what it said it was going to do stemming from an industrial recruitment project. If my readers know of anything approaching this in similarity, please let me know. But first read on.

The 10-count indictment accuses National Steel Car CEO Gregory James Aziz and his brother, Warren, of lying about the cost to build a railcar manufacturing facility in Colbert County, knowing full well that the true cost would far exceed the $350 million loan that Retirement Systems of Alabama provided for construction.

A revised agreement was worked out in which RSA agreed to up the loan amount to $625 million to complete the plant in northwest Alabama. At some point in 2009, RSA must have figured that it was being played, because it ended its relationship with National Steel Car and began steps to take over the incomplete building.

The 2.2-million-square-foot facility in the Barton Riverfront Industrial Park, 12 miles west of Tuscumbia, was eventually built, but the announced 1,800 jobs never happened. Subsequently, the Alabama Securities Commission investigated and a grand jury indictment in Colbert County resulted earlier this month.

The indictment says that Aziz, who is now free on a $1 million bond, “repeatedly falsely represented to the governor of Alabama that the project was on time and on budget.”  I found a photograph online of then Gov. Bob Riley standing onstage with Aziz during the initial announcement back in 2007. Both men were smiling as if they were lottery winners.

In 2011, Navistar leased the facility from RSA, and FreightCar America has leased a quarter of the plant and began producing coal railcars in July with a workforce of about 70. FreightCar says it may hire up to 500 employees as production ramps up in the next few years, according to press reports.

The Nuclear Option

Now I have a lot of friends in Alabama, a place that I will always view as a second home. I spent more than 20 years there in my professional life, first as a journalist and later as an economic developer and then consultant. (A downward spiral if I have ever seen one.)

One of my friends, an economic developer who I greatly respect, suggested that this National Steel Car story was not a “simple matter of an economic development project gone sour. This is an indictment of securities fraud, and I think it’s probably a lot more complicated than a company not living up to its commitments.”

My friend is absolutely right that this is more than a project gone wrong. It’s now a criminal matter, because somebody in Alabama officialdom chose to make it so. Why this particular case is thought to go beyond the pale of civil litigation, I do not know. But it happens at a time when JP Morgan Chase this past week paid a record $13 billion settlement to settle federal and state civil claims by various entities related to the mortgage securities.

But for whatever reason or reasons, Alabama went for the nuclear option with National Steel Car by going the criminal route, which I find more than a little noteworthy. Apparently, they want more than just money from Aziz. No, they must want him to face jail time. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the RSA.

Keep in mind that RSA is one of the 20 largest pension funds in the world, managing assets worth more than $32 billion, including the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama. David Bronner, the CEO of RSA, is a very smart and shrewd investor, and he has a more than capable staff. He is also a bit of a warlord in Montgomery, and I get the impression that he has probably told more than one governor to go take a hike.

The fact that RSA got burned with National Steel Car surprises me, as I would have thought they would have found some tale-tell signs that this investment strategy was not a good deal worth entering. They must have eventually come to that conclusion back in 2009, but by then they were hip deep in it.

In business as in life, risk is always something to be weighed. And even RSA and JP Morgan Chase are capable messing up, although they hate to admit it as stakeholders can be an irksome bunch. But I go back to the mice and men analogy — sometimes things just don’t play out the way the way they were supposed to. And that holds true even for the big money boys, who play with others people’s money.

An Unintentional Message?

Most savvy business leaders know how plans can and do unravel, and are hesitant to point all the blame at others when they too may share a good part of it. Of course, when they do blame others, they usually do so in the form of civil lawsuits, seeking compensatory and punitive monetary damages.

Criminal cases assign blame in a most extreme fashion, as those charged can face prison time. While I do believe those adjudicated guilty should pay, and that bad apples should be rooted out, I cannot help but wonder if this nuclear option is a message that Alabama wants to send out to the corporate world. I’m just saying.

Of course, I’m still trying to figure out why no Wall Street investment bankers, practicing dubious methods that resulted in the loss of trillions of dollars and brought the economy to its knees, ever faced criminal charges. The ramifications of their fraudulent practices are still with us and yet nary a one of them has faced jail time.

Go figure.

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 based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.


All’s Fair in Love and War: America’s Energy Advantage

In Energy, Manufacturing on November 17, 2013 at 6:00 am

Marcellus, Bakken, Eagle Ford, Permian, Niobrara and Haynesville.

Even to the most casual observer, some of these names do have a certain familiar ring about them. And they should, as they are among the dominant shale plays in the United States. And they have set the world on its head.

Developed technologies made it commercially viable to extract oil and gas from shale rock and largely because of it, the U.S. will become the world’s top energy producer by 2015, according to the International Energy Agency, supplanting both Russia and Saudi Arabia.

To which I will quote that respected industry observer, known for his piercing observations and in-depth analytical thought, Gomer Pyle: “Shazam!”

The IEA also predicts the U.S. will become self-sufficient in its energy needs by 2035. That is still a good ways off, but I never thought that was possible or likely despite of the many years the blowhard rhetoric emanating from Washington that we should seek energy independence. But it would appear that reality is truly within our grasp.

Again, this is all because of what we are sitting on and the fact that we have developed better technologies in this country to unlock the oil and gas from the shale rock.

Breaking Our Addiction

Now I would bet you that our predicted future of independence or even less dependence gives OPEC, the oil cartel founded in Baghdad and made up of Arab countries where the U.S. will never win a popularity contest, a degree of pause. I can only hope.

As someone who remembers the long lines at gas stations during the 1973 oil crisis, I shed no tears for OPEC, as they have shed none for us when they literally had us over a barrel. They still do to some degree, as we remain the world’s biggest oil-consuming nation and the largest importer of crude oil. But the point is that we are breaking our addiction to foreign oil because of what we are doing on the home front.

Indeed, the U.S. produced more crude oil in October than it imported for the first time since early 1995, as domestic shale oil output continued to surge and our consumption (much of it due to conservation and more energy efficient technologies employed) remained relatively flat.

Net crude oil imports in October fell to 7.57 million barrels a day, down from 7.92 million barrels in September and down 8 percent from the year before, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The Million Barrels Club

Meanwhile, the Bakken Shale, is about to reach a milestone: pumping a million barrels of crude a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The EIA says oil companies in the Bakken, which is located primarily in North Dakota, will reach the million-barrel milestone in December, up from an estimated 976,000 barrels in November. Drillers are spending about $16 billion in the Bakken this year, according to research firm Wood Mackenzie.

The Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, hit the million-barrels-a-day mark back in May of this year, according to the EIA data. The Permian Basin — the massive field in Texas that’s been the foundation for U.S. oil production for decades – got there in May 2011.

The Biggest Turnaround Story

This mega-shift in energy production, spurred on by advances in hydraulic fracturing technologies, happened pretty quickly. Five years ago, U.S. oil production hit a 62-year low. Since then, domestic production has increased by more than 50 percent.

As a former business journalist, I view this as the biggest business turnaround story in my life. And it bodes quite well for the long-term growth prospects for the U.S.

Today, as a site selection/economic development consultant, I am constantly reading and talking to business people about new investments and resources dedicated to energy production and not just in the oil patch.

Clean Coal in Mississippi?

I was very much surprised to learn last week of a coal-fired power plant now under construction by the Southern Co. in Kemper County, Miss. Frankly, I wasn’t so sure that we would ever see any new coal-powered plants to be built again because of stringent EPA standards now in place. But this new plant being built may prove that there actually is such a thing as clean-coal technology.

The not-so-good news is the 582-megawatt plant 30 miles north of Meridian is considerably over budget, to the tune of about $1 billion according to some reports. I have read conflicting numbers on what the total cost might be. The Southern Co. says $4 billion, but Bloomberg Businessweek is pegging the number closer to $5 billion.

Whatever number is correct, the Department of Energy estimated back in April that a utility buying a plant with the new technology would pay double the price of a conventional plant. The price of new pioneering technology often does not come cheap.

When finished by the fourth quarter of 2014, the plant, to be operated by Southern Co. subsidiary Mississippi Power, will use a process known as coal gasification, where it burns gas extracted from pulverized coal. That in itself is not a new technology, but the Kemper plant — which literally sits atop of a lignite coal seam that will serve as its source of fuel for an estimated 40 years — will be the first to remove carbon dioxide. The gas will be sold to Texas-based Denbury Resources, which plans to inject it down into wellheads to unlock gas and oil from the shale rock.

Worse Storms to Come

It is not surprising that some environmentalists consider the carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology to be used at Kemper as not good enough. There are some critics who believe we should nevermore touch coal as a source of fuel because of greenhouse emissions.

Certainly, the environmentalists are right to be concerned as the body of scientific evidence does show that climate change is a real thing, that the planet and its oceans are indeed warming, at least partly due to greenhouse emissions created by nations worldwide.

Last week, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, with sustained winds between 190 and 195 miles per hour, killed thousands.  Many scientists are looking at climate models that suggest that intensity limits will keep rising with the potential for more devastating storms due to global warming.

So what do we do? Well, the truth is that we cannot and will not abandon fossil fuels any time soon and nor should we. But if we can burn cleaner and more efficiently through applied technologies, and supplement our energy needs with renewables (solar and wind), then we stand a good chance of reducing emissions all the while reaching that energy independence that we seek. I submit that those are not conflicting goals.

Billion Dollar Projects on the Horizon

The various industries of energy will play a huge role in the future of local economies throughout this country. Economic development organizations should take a long and hard look at this as there will be likely job creation and in some places it will be considerable.

Billion-dollar energy projects are now being announced with some frequency in Texas and Louisiana in support of this burgeoning natural gas boom. Just one example is Houston-based Cheniere Energy. The company, which is now in the process of building a liquefied natural gas export facility in Louisiana, also hopes to build a similar facility in Corpus Christi, Texas, at a cost of about $12 billion.

Cheniere’s Sabine Pass facility in Louisiana was the first to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Energy to ship natural gas to countries with which the U.S. doesn’t have free trade agreements. The company is seeking permits to export gas from additional facilities planned at Sabine Pass, and from Corpus Christi.

There is debate as to whether it is a good idea for the U.S. to be exporting natural gas abroad, rather than hording and using it as a resource solely here at home. The chemicals and steel industries, which uses a tremendous amount of gas in the manufacturing process, questions whether the cost of natural gas might significantly rise if exports take place.

Not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry says that will not happen. Proponents of gas exports contend that increased gas production here in the states could fuel a response to rising international demand and keep worldwide prices relatively low. As a former skeptical newspaperman, I am not sure I buy that.

When You Got an Edge

However this plays out and wherever the truth lies, the good news is that U.S. manufacturers do now have a significant advantage in terms of energy costs in comparison to their counterparts in Europe and Asia.

And that in itself should drive at least some foreign direct investment to the U.S., especially so if a company intends to sell a majority of its goods or services in this market.

European companies, facing low demand for their products and rigid labor markets, are paying three times more natural gas and their electricity costs are double of that in the U.S. Prices for U.S. natural gas are currently around $3.70 per 1 million BTU, compared with just over $16 per in Europe and Asia.

In business as in life, when you got an edge, you take it. All is fair in love and war.

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 based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.


There Must be Something in the Water

In Places on November 10, 2013 at 6:45 am

MERIDIAN, Miss. – Now you can argue with some justification that all places have their own signature, their own ways of being. And as a site selection/economic development consultant, I have come to appreciate this.

But I am hard-pressed to tell you of another place like Mississippi. Sure, the states that border it do have certain similarities, but Mississippi is distinct. Here I am constantly reminded of what once was and what could be.  As someone who values history and believes that we can learn from it, I like that. I like that a lot.

I do no justice to the people of Mississippi in trying to neatly summarize their history as it cannot be done in this short space. But I think it is fundamental to know that the vast majority of Mississippians, both black and white, suffered from societal and government controls that were slapped onto them.

The black experience in Mississippi derived from just horrible circumstances. African Americans endured a brutal system of slavery that denied them even the most basic human rights. Slaves were robbed of any dignity by not even being granted personhood. In the eyes of the law, they were property, pure and simple. Things hardly got better under Jim Crow.

Ironically, most white Mississippians also lived a life of hardscrabble and saw no benefit from black oppression. These white yeoman farmers were duped into believing that keeping blacks “in their place” somehow ensured their own welfare if not superiority.

Those doing the duping, the elites who controlled both commerce and politics, were largely the planter class. It was all too important for them for this system of control, of both blacks and poor whites, to remain in place as it was quite profitable.

From the Civil War of the 1860s to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the conflict was whether this perverse system of control, fortified by laws and regulations, could be maintained. Many blacks and some poor whites said essentially “screw this” and left, migrating to northern cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago, to find work in factories.

Through it all, maybe because of it all, an unimaginable explosion of writers and musicians emerged in Mississippi. The writers included William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, John Grisham, Margaret Walker Alexander; Eudora Welty and Shelby Foote to name just a few.

As Mississippi is the home of the blues, seminal musicians emerged, such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Son House, Bessie Smith, Willie Dixon, Mississippi John Hurt, and Charlie Patton. They were followed by subsequent generations of Mississippian musicians whose ranks included Elvis Presley, Bo Diddley, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, Jimmy Buffett and Faith Hill. And then there was the singing brakeman, Jimmy Rodgers. More on him later.

Looking at all this literary and musical talent, you have to wonder if there is something in the water that brings it out.

Their voices all speak of an intertwined fabric of Mississippi – hardship and hope, despair and redemption. And the past was ever present in their songs and stories.  William Faulkner said it best in Requiem for a Nun, set in the mythical Yoknapatawpha County.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

A $44 million Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center is planned for in Meridian. I saw the spot for the 58,500-square-foot venue during our bus tour. You can bet I’ll be coming back when it opens in 2017. I hope to be back before then.

The Flying Keys

Soon after arriving in Meridian on Wednesday, I boarded a bus with other site selection consultants and was taken to the local airport, called Key Field, where I learned, surprise, surprise that there was a 140-acre industrial site available for aviation purposes.

More memorable was learning about two brothers from which the airport was named. Fred and Al Key lifted off from the Meridian airport in a borrowed airplane on June 4, 1935. For the next 27 days, they flew around Meridian without ever landing, as food and fuel were supplied via a long flexible tube from another attending aircraft.

The non-stop endurance flight of the “Flying Keys” lasted 653 hours, 34 minutes. Their borrowed airplane, named Ole Miss, is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

I also watched a video that made the case for Meridian being a logical place for an aviation MRO (maintenance repair operation), but my mind kept wandering back to those crazy Key brothers and how they made history.

Our Brand is Our Music

Later that night, I found myself on the stage of what was once Meridian’s Grand Opera House, circa 1890s. It was closed in 1927, and essentially mothballed and boarded up for decades, until someone got the bright idea to look inside. What they found was astonishing, an 1890s opera house that was pretty much intact.

Today, following a $25 million restoration, this grand old dame has been renamed the MSU Riley Center. It is a jaw-opening beauty with extravagant interior and great acoustics.

As part of our itinerary, I ate dinner on that stage with other consultants and economic developers that included representatives of the Mississippi Development Authority and Mississippi Power. (A special thanks to Alisha Frazier with Mississippi Power for her planning and cat-herding abilities.) As I was in utter awe of the historic theater, I really don’t remember much of what was said.

But I do remember Wade Jones, the president of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation, later to be referred to as “Suede” because of his coolness, saying a rather curious thing: “Our brand is our music. It brings our people together.”

I pondered his statement, all the while listening to a duo playing jazz guitar and clarinet. The next day, on Thursday, Jones’ comments would make even more sense, as I got to see Jimmy Rodgers reincarnate.

Getting Down to Business

Wade opened our breakfast meeting with the obligatory PowerPoint presentation about Meridian. I learned that within a 65-mile radius of Meridian, there was a workforce of over a half million people. I learned there were nearly 1,000 doctors in the region and some 6,000 health-care workers.

I got the scoop on major employers, Meridian Community College, and Meridian’s three industrial parks, all within close proximity to Interstates 59/20. I also learned about the 1,500-acre mega-site which was dual rail served.

Later that morning, I stretched my legs inside a virtually new and vacant 463,000-square-foot distribution center that was operated for only about a year before its owner went bust. The building, with 32-foot ceilings and more than 40 dock doors, sat within almost spitting distance of I-59/20 and can be had for about 50 cents on the dollar. I would be surprised if it is still available a year from now.

More revealing was touring a plant operated by Tower Automotive, a Tier One supplier to Nissan but now extending its product line of stamped parts to other companies as a Tier Two and Tier Three supplier. The plant manager explained how the manufacturing process worked in the plant, which entailed about 140 workers working around and with 67 robots.

An obviously knowledgeable operations guy who has worked in automotive plants in Ohio and at the Ford assembly plant in Kansas City, I asked him how the workers in Meridian compared to their counterparts in the Midwest. He said the workforce in Meridian was “good and conscientious” but that they balked at the idea of working overtime, which he found curious.

He also said the skill sets required for certain highly skilled technical jobs, such as robotic programming and maintenance, were sorely lacking. Still, he was upbeat about the workers in his plant and referred to many of them by their first name.

Pie, SCAR, and Jimmie

Several experiences would follow later in the day that I will forever remember – eating the “world famous black-bottom pie” at lunch at Weidmann’s Restaurant, seeing and hearing Jimmie Rodgers come back to life, and offing a zombie with a Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle (SCAR) in full automatic mode. Well, the zombie was actually a paper target inside an indoor range, but it was all still very cool.

While at Weidmann’s, the oldest operating restaurant in the state since 1870, I had the pleasure to listen to Britt Gully sing those old and wonderful Jimmie Rodgers songs. I can only describe Britt as the real deal, a throwback to a bygone era when music was music. He recorded his CD “Jimmie Rodgers’ Guitar” at the Jimmie Rodgers Museum in Meridian. (Jimmie’s original 1928 000-45 Martin guitar sits inside a climate-controlled vault with a glass door. It is valued at $3 million.)

Britt was accompanied by Amy Lott, another great local talent. She was the clarinet player at the Riley Center the night before. We would see her again later that night playing keyboard with a band during a catered dinner held at an old steam plant. But back to Jimmie Rodgers, whom I simply idolize.

Rodgers was a giant in 20th century music. He died on May 26, 1933 of tuberculosis two days after his final recording session in New York City. When the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum was established in 1961, Rodgers was one of the first three inductees. He is also in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame. He was only 35 years old when he died.

Fact is always stranger than fiction. In the village of Kapkatet, Kenya in the early 1950′s, members of the Kipsigi tribe somehow got hold of some 78 records of Jimmie Rodgers. Convinced that such strange sounds could not come from a mere human, they attributed the voice to a half-man half-antelope spirit they called Chemirocha.

During fertility rites, young Kipsigi maidens would dance seductively to the Jimmie Rodgers records, begging him to join them in dance in hopes that Chemirocha would get nekkid (a southern euphemism for naked) with them.

I think Rodgers would have gotten a big kick out of being worshiped as a demigod. I know I would.

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 based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.

Work Triumphs Here

In Places on November 3, 2013 at 6:05 am

JOPLIN, Mo. – The good food and good conversation at the dinner revived me, but I was still glad to get back in my hotel room.

It had been a grueling 14-hour day in which I traveled nearly 300 miles and met with economic developers, mayors, city councilmen and county commissioners at small towns along the way in adjoining counties in Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.

Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Regional Economic Development Alliance, had promised a “magical mystery tour.” Back in the sanctuary of the Homewood Suites on Monday night, it felt more like “let’s kick Dean’s butt tour.” But, hey, I asked for it. I wanted to see before I spoke.

I had the World Series on the big screen TV and a PowerPoint on the small screen of my laptop. My mission was to tweak my presentation, based on all the things that I had seen and heard earlier in the day. The next morning, I was to speak to regional stakeholders in Pittsburg, Kan.; followed by Miami, Okla., at lunch; and then Carthage, Mo., in late afternoon.

But my thoughts were not flowing. I was tuckered out.

Fiddling with My PowerPoint

While keeping an eye on the game, I nonetheless fiddled with my PowerPoint, which I had endowed with the cumbersome title of “A Consultant’s View: How I Do My Job and How Communities Can Compete for Corporate Investment.” Most of the changes that I made were not substantive, and I went to bed about midnight with a gnawing feeling of incompletion.

But then, I awoke at 5 a.m. with the realization that I had to add two more slides.

Newly created Slide No. 25 said, “People Choose Places for All Kinds of Reasons.” It showed a photograph that I had taken on Sunday afternoon, soon after arriving in Joplin, of a stone garage apartment. Next to my photograph was a black and white photo of a young smiling couple, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

From April 1 to April 13, 1933, the garage apartment served as their tranquil hideout. But local law enforcement but somehow got wind  of their presence and came knocking. The result was two dead officers and Bonnie and Clyde making their escape.

No doubt, the outlaw duo thought their apartment was a safe harbor. There is something to be said for safety in site selection, as risk management always at the forefront.

Newly created Slide No. 26 was entitled “People Make the Difference.” It featured another photograph that I took on Sunday of a new plant under construction.

Next to the picture, I placed a telling quote: “There was no whining after the tornado. It was get off your ass and get back to work. We respect that. You are the kind of people we want to work with.” – Bill Bishop.

Bill Bishop is founder and chairman of the Blue Buffalo Company, which is now building an $85 million plant in Joplin that will manufacture dog food. The facility will eventually employ 150 people.

That Fateful Day

Bishop was referring to a catastrophic day in Joplin’s history, when an F5 multiple-vortex tornado descended on the city. It was late in the afternoon on Sunday, May 22, 2011.

Many if not most tornadoes are bad, but this one was a particular monster. It left a path of devastation virtually obliterated entire neighborhoods. More than 7,000 homes were destroyed, along with a score of churches and schools.

You can can still see evidence of that terrible, fateful day.  A large vacant tract is all that remains of where St. John’s Regional Medical Center (now known as Mercy) once stood. (It is being now rebuilt in a different part of town.)

A hillside bears a cross as a testament to where a church once stood. There are parking lots where there are no attending buildings. And you see these open spaces where it’s not hard to imagine that homes once stood.

From the standpoint of the people of Joplin, it was miraculous that “only” 161 people died and not thousands due to the scope of the destruction.

From Tragedy Springs Hope and Change

We yearn for a better path. I saw it recently in New Orleans and now I was bearing witness to it here in Joplin – that tragedy somehow bears fruit. That with death and destruction comes a new start.

Maybe a disaster serves as a slap in the face to the realization of the frailty and vulnerability of life. An educator at the Monday night dinner said the storm opened eyes as to the possibilities of what could be and that there was no time to waste. And now Joplin is now rebuilding with that in mind.

Both in Joplin and New Orleans, which succumbed to Hurricane Katrina, there is this underlying belief, cautiously stated, that the storms provided a launch pad for something greater to be achieved, for past ills to be fixed. Another educator at dinner likened the tornado to a forest fire that cleared the underbrush.

That’s not how I would put it, but I think I understood what she was saying. We have only a finite time on this earth, so let us get past the clutter and go about making a positive change. From tragedy springs hope and change.

But I am convinced that if this same hell would have rained down on any one of the neighboring towns that I visited in Missouri, Kansas or Oklahoma, the same spirit of “let’s go to work” and build anew would have manifested itself. There is resilience in the people here. They lean forward.

So it is not surprising to me that Jasper County, where most of Joplin sits, became the very first ACT Certified Work Ready Community in the nation. No complacency here.

By the way, my friend David Dodd, principal of New Orleans-based DADCO Consulting, specializes in economic development disaster recovery. Should a terrible event befall your community, he can help.

Join or Die

City lines, county lines, even state lines make little difference in the larger picture of what a particular place truly has to offer. Hence, my message was there is a power to regionalism that should never be overlooked.

In a site selection project, I can most assuredly tell you that assets are viewed not by solely what is in your backyard, but also that of your neighbor’s. We are looking for all sorts of things, much of which will be of a regional nature – things like an airport, an interstate highway, a community college, a hospital and the like.

In that sense, you are your neighbor’s keeper, and it is pleasing for me to see more economic developers recognizing this fact. If they cannot win the project, they know that it being in the next county will result in a bleed-over effect, with resulting jobs and commerce happening in their community.

I was pleased my evangelistic message of regionalism – which featured a slide depicting a Revolutionary War image of snake cut up into multiple parts and proclaiming “Join or Die” — was generally well received. Not a single roll was hurled in my direction.

The Joplin Globe wrote a story about it. The local television station, KOAM, also broadcast a report. Both were in Miami, Okla., when I gave my spiel.

Brilliance Born of Necessity

I happen to believe that the rural tradition of this seven-county region represented by the JREDP provides for a foundational strength in manufacturing.

The people in southwest Missouri, northeast Oklahoma and southeast Kansas value public education, and take a certain pride in their high schools, community colleges and universities. (I was particularly impressed Pittsburg State University’s Department of Engineering Technology, which is turning out a pipeline of talent.)

But they also come from a farming stock and a long tradition of tinkering, fixing things and devising solutions to problems because help may not be so close by. Brilliance born of necessity is evident in a farm culture that must make do with what one has.

Manufacturing as a percentage of the workforce is twice the national average here. Bill Bishop got it right. This is a place of work and not whining, of motivation and not resting on one’s laurels.

During my whirlwind tour of the region, Kevin Welch kept me entertained with songs on his classic rock mp3 player. “There hasn’t been a good song made since 1990,” he opined. And he took me to some interesting places along the way.

One foggy morning, I photographed the modest home where Harry Truman was born in Lamar, Mo. The next day, my new bud would take a picture of me standing in front of the even more modest structure in Commerce, Okla. The house, which badly needed a coat of paint and with a front porch showing signs of rot, was the boyhood home of Mickey Mantle.

Finding the Gorilla

But probably the most memorable place from the standpoint of just plain weirdness was Picher, Okla.

Once a town of more than 14,000 people back in 1926, it is now a ghost town, emptied when the EPA found it to be uninhabitable and life-threatening. Indeed, a 1996 study revealed that 34 percent of the children in Picher suffered from some degree of lead poisoning. On top of that, 86 percent of the buildings were subject to collapse because of underground lead and zinc mines.

Throughout much of the region, you will see these mounds called chat piles. They are gravel waste piles that came from separating the rock from the lead and zinc ore in the mining operations Trust me, you do not want to put your tongue on one of these things.

I was photographing the mountainous chat piles, the deserted homes and empty streets of Picher when we came upon this large black gorilla, actually a statue of the mascot for a high school that no longer exists. He was on a pedestal that proclaimed some state championship back in 1984.

I think somebody needs to go fetch that gorilla, because he cannot be happy there alone on his pedestal in a town that is forever gone. Let’s give this big fella a proper home. He deserves as much.

By Hook or Crook

I submit that every place has its own Picher. It may not be the environmental bombshell that this town came to be, but every town, city and region has challenges and low points.

As a location investigator, I will find them by hook or crook if I am hired to do so. So you might as well just show or tell me, as Kevin did, and get it over with.  In a far different role, I can also serve as a consultant for an economic development entity and tell a community how to make certain problems less problematic.

I have yet to tell a town to empty itself and cease operations. Rather, I have offered ideas on how to ameliorate risk and thereby improve a local business climate.

“Ameliorate. You got to be kidding. Nobody talks like that around here,” said Kevin after we got into his SUV following one of my presentations. We were headed to our next gig in the next town.

“You’re right. I shouldn’t have used that word,” I said. “But your people do seem to know how to git r done. Can I say that? Can I say git r done?”

It wasn’t too long before we got to that next town. Along the way, I marveled at the scenic pastoral beauty of the rolling countryside scattered about with bright splotches of color. Fall had arrived, and I was having fun. But I was still thinking about that gorilla.

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 based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

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