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.
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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