The process of developing an economy, whether it's a small and local economy or a large and national economy, is a long game. There may be some shortcuts, fast tracks or boosts along the way, but sustainable economic growth is best accomplished as it has proper time to steady itself.
Local government budgeting, by contrast, is best done on a short term basis.
Elected officials in Ozark, Nixa and Christian County are playing the long game with short term tools. They must decide how much money to obligate toward their chosen economic development engine, Show Me Christian County, against one of the most volatile, difficult-to-predict budgets we’ve seen since around 2008.
It’s a little like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall, but at least we have some educated Jell-O carpenters in our midst.
Show Me Christian County President Andrea Sitzes requested a total of $250,000 over five years from the city of Ozark, broken up as $50,000 per year. It also requested $50,000 from the city of Nixa over five years, which has since been dropped to $50,000 by the Nixa City Council, and additional money from the Christian County Commission.
To date, only the county commission has made its 2021 pledge to Show Me Christian County at $50,000.
If Ozark, Nixa and the surrounding communities are to work together as one cohesive Christian County, there will have to be some adjustments and some concessions in 2021. The adjusting begins now.
In 2012, the cities of Ozark and Nixa, the chambers of commerce in Ozark and Nixa and the government of Christian County funded a study by Austin, Texas-based TIP Strategies to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the northern Christian County economy. One of the consultants’ top recommendations in the report was for Christian County entities to form a singular organization for future economic development work.
The consultants didn’t say that it would be easy, and they didn’t say that everyone would collect benefits from the partnership on equal terms throughout the process.
In Nixa, city councilman argued the merits of Show Me Christian County because thus far, its two main wins in the manufacturing sector have been in Ozark: Creative Audio and Alpine Aviation.
“I’ll just be frank, Show Me Christian County—they need a big ‘W’ for Nixa,” District 1 Councilman Scott Perryman said.
“What is a win? Is it bringing a manufacturing facility to Nixa?” District 1 Councilman Jarad Giddens asked.
“Getting our money back and then some,” Perryman responded.
To make a basketball analogy, Nixa wants the ball. Nixa thinks that Ozark is hogging the ball and shooting too much. Nixa wants to score more points and get some individual statistics.
Since most of us have seen “The Last Dance” on ESPN or on streaming platforms, I’ll continue with basketball by comparing the Christian County economy to the Chicago Bulls dynasties of the 1990s. Nixa and Ozark both want to be the Michael Jordan of Christian County economic development. Right now, Ozark is, at best, the Scottie Pippen. Nixa feels like Horace Grant at best and B.J. Armstrong or John Paxson at worst. Clever, Sparta and Highlandville find themselves feeling like Bill Cartwright, Stacey King and Will Perdue. No one, at the moment, is really the Jordan, but everyone wants to “Be Like Mike.”
Teamwork is a hard sell. City councilmen in Nixa are elected to represent Nixa’s best interests and to be smart with Nixa’s limited supply of tax revenue. The same can be said for Ozark. From the outside looking in, it doesn’t make good business sense for Nixa to fork over its money so that development can happen in Ozark, but that overlooks the potential for some long term benefits that can be had from passing the ball.
It’s not an ultimatum. They don’t have to share. Nixa and Ozark don’t have to function as a conglomerate like Dallas/Fort Worth or Minneapolis/St. Paul, or like northwest Arkansas does with Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville pulling off reasonable degrees of coexistence. They can act with more self-interest, if that’s what their citizens and elected officials determine is the best course of action.
One thing is fairly certain. It wouldn’t hurt Christian County to diversify its development as housing subdivisions continue going up in spite of a difficult set of economic conditions. Ozark City Administrator Steve Childers addressed this as Ozark’s aldermen discussed housing for workers whose jobs have shifted from offices to a work-from-home environment.
“We have to build the right housing, we have to create the sense of place, we have to leave open space. We can’t have every square inch of our town be a rooftop, because that is not attractive to people. You will lose the character that you fought so hard for so many years to keep,” Childers said.
2020 isn’t “The Last Dance” for Christian County’s economic growth, but the debates by the three local governments over funding represent a pivot point. If they don’t fund Show Me Christian County as requested now, that doesn’t spell “doom” for the organization or any future plans at cooperation, but it does change the timeline and potentially impact future projects.
Nothing will be easy, nothing will be guaranteed, but there will be a point in the future where we look back on these discussions as moments that changed our course as a single Christian County. This is a defining moment in a long game.