April 11, 2011

Officials Promote Regional Development as Part of Bus Tour

By Jeff Fox - jeff.fox@examiner.net
The Examiner
Local officials on Friday got a glimpse of current and future economic development and a chance to bring state legislators up to speed on their efforts with visits to Blue Springs, Independence and Lee’s Summit.

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, whose office arranged the morning-long tour, has called for a regional approach to development instead of cities competing with one another.

“It’s about all of us succeeding as a whole,” he said.

One stop on the tour was near Adams Dairy Parkway in Blue Springs, a 60-acre area that’s to be the site of the Missouri Innovation Park in partnership with the University of Missouri-Columbia, which last year opened an office in the city as a step toward getting the facility going. It will be focused on areas as life sciences and clean energy, tapping into the university’s research and others assets. Officials say they are looking at attracting companies with jobs paying $65,000 to $100,000.

“We’re actually getting inquiries from all over,” said Mayor Carson Ross.

Brien Starner, president of the Blue Springs Economic Development Corp., warned against development strategies that concentrate on landing one big deal – a retailer, a manufacturer – despite long odds. That, he said, is like a company having just one product and centering an entire business plan on just that.

“A one-hit wonder is not a business plan and a strategy,” Starner said.

Starner also said many companies are struggling with changes in technology and need to stay on top of that to survive and thrive.

“These are areas that Mizzou has an advantage in,” he said.

The city is pursuing things other than the Innovation Park, he said.

“This is part of what we’re doing,” Starner said. “It’s not all of what Blue Springs is about.”

In Independence, EDC President Tom Lesnak showed visitors the Ennovation Center, which opened last year as an office incubator focused on areas including bioscience and small companies that need access to kitchen space for limited times each week.

“The demand for the kitchen has been overwhelming,” Lesnak said.

Debbie Kraft of Cooking Connections – gourmet cookies for stores such as Barnes & Noble – said she looked for space for two and a half years.

“And lo and behold, I found this wonderful place,” she said.

In a bioscience lab – an old operating theater, as the building used to be Independence Regional Health Center – Lesnak said a Florida company is looking to come in with about half a dozen employees at about $70,000 a year.

“That’s the kind of jobs we certainly want to create in our community,” he said.

The Lee’s Summit leg of the tour included the bustling manufacturing area near the airport (which is soon to be expanded with an runway long enough for corporate jets). That area – now about halfway to its slated 3 million feet of developed space – got a boost with the recent opening of the Strother Road interchange at Interstate 470. That interchange came about only because of a great of local, state and federal effort, said Lee’s Summit Economic Development Council president and CEO Jim Devine.

Among the companies in that area is Dow Kokam, with 64 employees making lithium-ion batteries for the military and other uses. A second plant is possible if electric cars become popular.

Still, Devine said, economic development organizations play a key role.

“Most businesses want a partner” and are looking for stability and predictability over time, he said.

“Public-private partnerships are the key to success,” he said.

The morning-long conversation also revealed some differences in perspective.

Starner said businesses need more than just space.

“They’re not looking for real estate. ... The issue is what are you doing for companies’ competitive advantage beyond real estate,” he said.

Devine, however, said Lee’s Summit – geographically large but also rapidly filling up – is running short on space to develop or redevelop.

“Our greatest weakness in Eastern Jackson County,” he said, “is lack of available buildings.”