There’s not another city as large as West Plains within a 100-mile radius. As a result, this south central Missouri community of over 12,000 in Howell County attracts a large amount of the region’s business and employees. Yet it’s competing on a much larger scale.
Last fall, one of West Plains’ largest employers, Robertshaw, announced that production of its gas valves and thermostats will be consolidated and transferred to a facility in Mexico, impacting roughly 400 jobs. Other recent company announcements of staff and shift reductions will expand those numbers.
“You can say woe is me or we can stand up and say ‘Okay. That happened. Let’s move forward and try to take this and build something, build something else,’” Case said.
Robert Case is the West Plains economic development director. This past month, he welcomed officials with the Missouri Department of Economic Development (DED) to town as part of the state agency’s 2015 Rural Community Tour. The day featured informational meetings with city and business leaders on topics from industrial development and education to agribusiness and small business development.
“Having some recommendations, solid recommendations, outside of eyes looking in based on comments that was given to them from community members – it’s great.”
One of the more frequent comments mentioned to DED officials was the lack of available and affordable broadband. Johnny Murrell is the executive director of the South Central Ozark Council of Governments. He says a survey conducted throughout the region a couple of years ago supports these broadband concerns.
“Like a 10 gig around here is pretty good. But I think we were told earlier today that the speed in the urban areas are five time as fast at 20 percent of the cost that’s been quoted for our area around here,” Murrell says.
DED says it plans to develop a rural broadband conference to discuss best options, technology issues, and potential providers. This would also include cell phone coverage.
Local officials also noted concerns about transportation infrastructure, low wages, struggles in attracting and retaining young professionals, and education funding, among others. But DED offered an overall positive analysis and optimistic review before a crowd of roughly 100 to close out the day-long tour.
‘It’s not necessarily inventing the wheel, but it’s taking what you have and building upon that,” DED’s Luke Holtschneider told the crowd.
Subash Alias with Missouri Partnership added, “I know it’s not good news to see layoffs but companies can say, ‘Alright look, can we take this workforce, do some slight tweaking and then maybe we can utilize them.’ We need to get that word out that we have that here.”
“What I want you to do is to think regionally," says Greg Batson with USDA Rural Development. "There’s all kinds of organizations that are working in West Plains and around West Plains. You need to be thinking about how you can build a network with those folks.”
DED Director Mike Downing added that the looming layoffs are a “kick in the teeth” for the community, but there’s a good foundation in place to mend the situation.
In December, the agency conducted a survey of 331 Robershaw employees. It found that 33 percent of the company’s workers have been there for 10 or more years. So for an older workforce that’s primarily skilled in manufacturing, what’s the next step after the plant closes next year? 50 percent of survey participants said they’ll attend school or seek out training in some capacity.
That could bode well for the Advanced Manufacturing Training Center, a new partnership between the South Central Career Center and Missouri State University-West Plains.
“And so we see this as being a comfortable fit. Something that they [Robertshaw employees] already have a great level of expertise in, but they can continue to get that formal education that makes them even more competitive in the workforce,” Cotter says.
Josh Cotter is with the South Central Career Center. He says university students have a few options: An eight-week training, a two-semester certificate program, or:
“Get an associate’s degree in manufacturing [two years]. They also get some supply chain management and some things that make them a little more competitive of an employee. So they can either get the quick training, the intermediate training, or the long-term training. And that’s what we really see with this being the huge strength,” Cotter said.
This past week, the degree and certificate options (Manufacturing option in the Associate of Applied Science (AAS) in Technology degree, Associate of Science (AS) in Pre-Engineering degree and Certificate in Manufacturing Technology) received approval from the Missouri State University Board of Governors. Now, the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education will review the proposed programs at its June meeting.
As for an established economic development tool; look no further than the Ozarks Small Business Incubator, or OzSBI, whose clients in 2014 created 50 jobs. Take Chuck Swift, for example. He’s the owner and administrator for Restoring Hope, LLC, which contracts with the state to provide residential services to persons with developmental disabilities.
Swift’s business was the first at OzSBI. And since coming on board in 2012, Restoring Hope has grown from one office space to five, and hired roughly 50 more employees. He says they’ve taken advantage of the many trainings and mentoring offered by OzSBI, as well as the organization’s monthly milestone reports.
“Where we talk about what goals we’ve established. They help us keep accountable to our goals, and every time we come in we wanna make sure that we have shown them progress on our goals,” says Swift.
Some OzSBI clients are start-ups, seeking funding and marketing options. Others, like Swift’s, seek out the service to expand its already established business. In fact, the Missouri Department of Economic Development says that 75-90 percent of new jobs in a community come from expanding existing businesses.
“So it’s only natural that we here at OzSBI are here to grow those businesses,” says OzSBI CEO Toney Aid.
He and executive director Heather Fisher feel growing from within is one way their organization can help return lost jobs to the workforce. Fisher calls it value-added entrepreneurs, in which OzSBI helps expand a company by increasing its skill set and financial savvy.
“10 jobs here, 15 jobs [there],” she said. “We’re growing the local economy, we’re absorbing those people. But we’re also doing it in a way that is sustainable, because those businesses are here, they grew up here, they wanna stay here, and now they’re employing more people locally. And that’s what we want to be a part of.”
Efforts to bring new business to West Plains will continue to be a focus. But it’s clear that the economic push from within is also a priority. So even as large layoffs are approaching, strong entrepreneurial spirit and efforts to provide more training opportunities are examples of how this south central Missouri community is looking on the bright side of things.
Follow Scott Harvey on Twitter: @scottksmu