Columbia is the largest city in Missouri without enhanced economic zones, or EEZs. But history shows that similar economic incentives have been used to woo big employers, including the University of Missouri back in the 1830s.
Back then, several counties were competing to land the first state-sponsored university. According to the History of the University of Missouri, residents in Howard, Callaway, Cole and Boone County held weekly meetings encouraging community members to raise funds.
The university set off legislative battles as well. In 1833, Jefferson City was awarded the state penitentiary. A Jefferson City representative, hoping to secure the university for Cole County, attempted to sneak a rider into the state penitentiary bill. A representative from Howard County attempted to introduce a bill that would put the university in Fayette. A Columbia representative, James Rollins, introduced a bill, which passed, that awarded the University of Missouri to the area that raised the most money.
Columbia ultimately won the bid with $118,000 – about $2.4 million in today’s dollars. Callaway and Howard counties raised $100,000 each.
According to census data Boone, Howard and Callaway County had nearly equal populations of around 13,000 people. Howard’s population had actually shrunk to 10,212 in 2010. Callaway County’s population grew to greater than 44,000, but Boone County’s population had exploded to greater than 160,000. Securing the university, brought the city $27,000 in 1840 – $580,000 in today’s dollars. It also established externalities that would bring other businesses to the community.
If history is any indication of the pay off of tax breaks, developers argue that Columbia needs the much-debated EEZs. Opponents argue that an over reliance on incentives can pit communities against each other, which can result in a loss of jobs and money.
Regional Economic Development Inc. President Mike Brooks says not having the option puts the city at a disadvantage.
As he explains it companies narrow their search to cities who meet cost criteria and other basic needs – such as position on the supply chain – then select a city that offers the best deal.
“Opportunity comes with incentives,” Brooks said
Recently the city worked out a deal with IBM that brought more than 600 jobs,
Small changes in business can change an area’s economic outlook. As a result the stakes are high for economic developers. For example, if the University of Missouri ended up in Fayatte, Howard County, instead of Columbia, Fayette might be one of the top 10 largest cities in Missouri. According to 2000 census data Fayette’s population was around 2,500. Likewise Columbia could have a population of around 2,500 if it had lost the bid.
“Do you want to be the community that loses?” Brooks said.