The Ozark Board of Aldermen joins the governments of Nixa and Christian County in debating how much money to commit to shared economic development partnerships in 2021, in what is already a very messy and uncertain budget cycle.
Show Me Christian County, an economic development organization operating from an office in Nixa City Hall that runs on a mixture of public and private funding, made its pitch to the city of Ozark for five years worth of financial commitment. Its mission is to stimulate the local economy through business retention and expansion, daytime job growth, and development of a quality workforce in Christian County.
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. Sitzes compared the $50,000 with an annual salary for a certified economic developer at more than $80,000 per year, by comparison.
When Show Me Christian County was founded, Sitizes said, stakeholders in Christian County thought of economic development as “smokestack chasing,” or the idea of focusing on bringing big business developments into the area without much regard for what was already present. The cities of Ozark and Nixa lose about 80 percent of their residents each day, as they commute to Springfield or south to Taney County for work. The first job was to convince businesses to move from other parts of the country to Christian County.
“It was largely attraction, and what that left a lot of communities doing was spending a lot of money and not getting a lot of return on investment. Statistically speaking, the majority of new jobs that are created—depended on where you’re located, that’s anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of new jobs that are created—actually come from those businesses that are already in existence,” Sitzes said.
The scope of Show Me Christian County’s mission has crept, with a focus now geared toward developing Christian County’s workforce and making the communities in Christian County desirable for relocation.
“If you build it, they will come,” doesn’t work anymore, Sitzes said. The estimated unemployment rate in Christian County spiked at more than 12 percent in April 2020, but Sitzes said that rate has now fallen back below 5 percent. It’s not quite the 2.9-percent unemployment rate from March 2019, but the rate shows that the labor market in Christian County is very tight, and employers often struggle to fill positions they have open, especially when they need skilled workers.
In turn, Show Me Christian County recommends developing amenities that will make Ozark, Nixa and the surrounding cities desirable places to live.
“When it comes to a tight labor market, people go where there are cool things to do, for lack of a better term, and that’s where this placemaking effort comes into play. Things like our school districts, not a lot of traffic congestion, low crime rates, trails, recreational amenities, those kind of things. Companies will follow where the people are, so that’s why we must focus on the workforce development aspect and our quality of place, because the businesses are now following the people,” Sitzes said.
Ozark’s commitment will depend on its budgetary planning, Ozark City Administrator Steve Childers said.
“It’s all fund dependent. The general fund is always the most stressed fund we have, because it pays for public safety and streets, and it takes up about 90 percent of the budget. That’s a difficult thing,” Childers said. “Economic development—it’s something we need, it’s something we want.”
The debate for the Ozark aldermen became whether or not the city can afford such an investment in economic development, or could it afford not to invest in something with a promised return on investment the Show Me Christian County is pledging.
“If we are going to do better, if we are going to think bigger, than hopefully we will continue our conversations that we’ve been having about what we really want to look like, because the way that we have gone over the last 20 years is not sustainable,” Childers said.
Not everyone wants to live in a large home with a large yard, or can immediately afford to buy a large home on a large lot. People like Ozark for qualities beyond what its subdivisions look like, Childers said.
“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.
Ward 1 Alderman Nathan Posten questioned Sitzes during an Ozark Board of Aldermen meeting Nov.
“I see two separate issues that we need to talk about, one is the budget,” Posten said. “We will do what we’ve always done, we will come up with a number for economic development that we will put in that bucket and we will deal with contracts as they come down the road, and there will be a pool to choose from for economic development money.”
Posten noticed that Show Me Christian County’s requests for funding from Ozark have grown steadily since the organization was established.
“I was uncomfortable when that number went from $25,000 to $30,000 five years ago. Now that on one hand, we’re taking economic development more seriously, which I greatly appreciate, but we’re also approaching a threefold increase in economic development budget in a five-year period. That’s not sustainable,” Posten said.
He also questioned how Show Me Christian County’s mission and objectives seem to have changed. Part of Show Me Christian County’s proposal to Ozark involves the development on online job boards and other internet-based resources for jobseekers.
“We’re getting into an area of what we call in my field ‘scope creep,’ and there may be some overlapping opportunities that are being missed,” Poster said.
Ozark Mayor Rick Gardner countered that economic development work needed to shift in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, because the pandemic caused the way we think about industry and business to change.
“I understand what you mean by ‘scope creep,’ but I think that in my opinion, the appearance of (Show Me Christian County) doing that came as a result of the pandemic, and the need to alter their plans and be a little more resilient. During the pandemic, I can’t imagine there were a lot of people wanting to relocate,” Gardner said.
Posten suggested that Show Me Christian County be more helpful toward remote workers and telecommuters.
“They can work for Apple and IBM and these companies located in large cities that pay salaries significantly higher than the average around here, and yet they can live and work here from their home. That is the fastest-growing segment of our workforce, and it’s largely forgotten,” Posten said.
The Ozark Board of Aldermen will continue its discussion of financial commitment to Show Me Christian County for economic development at a future budget meeting, and the same holds true for the Nixa City Council. The Christian County Commission pledged $50,000 to Show Me Christian County for the 2021 fiscal year.