KC receives praise as Missouri Partnership presents at Columbia REDI

New Missouri Partnership CEO Steven Johnson took the reigns April 6. | Courtesy of the Missouri Partnership
Steven Johnson | Courtesy of the Missouri Partnership

Steven Johnson stood before the board of the Regional Economic Development Inc. in Columbia on Wednesday presenting on behalf of an organization he’s worked for less than three days.

Johnson, the new head of the Missouri Partnership, told REDI’s board members that he is excited about working with their organization and mid-Missouri.

“This job’s kind of personal to me,” Johnson, a former Jefferson City resident and Central Dairy employee, said.

Since he is new to his role at the Missouri Partnership, a nonprofit organization established to help bring businesses to the state, Johnson left most of the talking Wednesday to his vice president, Subash Alias.

Alias, who once lived just off of West Broadway in Columbia, spoke mostly about what criteria businesses look at when they consider establishing a presence in a community.

He mentioned that Sedalia does well with gun companies because of a gun-friendly climate. He said afterward that Columbia’s liberal reputation doesn’t hurt the city, but it doesn’t help, either. He compared Columbia to Austin, Texas, and said that the liberal reputation could make the city more attractive to technology companies, but he admitted it may scare off gun companies.

Alias praised Kansas City’s ability to “hit out of their weight class” in attracting companies. He said they are helped substantially by Kansas City, Kan., and the fact that Kansas has an attractive business climate, including so-called right-to-work laws.

Alias was asked what Columbia’s shortcomings are in being attractive to businesses, and he mentioned one that is a blessing and a curse.

“Columbia has a very tight labor market,” Alias said.

Columbia’s 4.1 percent February unemployment rate was the lowest in the state for February. It’s hard to hire 300 workers in Columbia, Alias pointed out.

Bernie Andrews, vice president of REDI, backed up this point by telling the story of a company that came to him a couple weeks ago looking to hire 100-125 workers on below-average wages. He had to tell the company that wouldn’t be possible in Columbia.

Johnson called it a “good problem to have.”

Mayor Bob McDavid, who attended the meeting, said afterward that he doesn’t think Columbia can rest on the laurels of its low unemployment rate.

“We’ve replaced higher-paying jobs with lower-paying jobs,” McDavid said. “You can’t be satisfied with your economic situation when you have a 20 percent poverty rate.”

According to Census data, Columbia’s poverty rate was 24.5 percent from 2009-2013.

No REDI projects were confirmed in April, but the prospect report showed that an economic development effort called Project Dry could be nearing confirmation.

“It’s moving really slowly,” Andrews said, “but I think we’re going to have a good shot at it.”

The number of jobs and amount of investment for the project are both yet to be determined, but the proposed data center would be building a first building larger than 100,000 square feet on 50-100 acres of land.

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