Rural Missouri Magazine

Back from the brink
Roundtable brings jobs,
people back to northwest Missouri

by Jim McCarty

There was a time when the motto of northwest Missouri might have been “Last one out turn off the lights.” Everyone, it seemed, had given up on the region as the greatest exodus of farm families since the Great Depression left for greener pastures. So great was the region’s plight that one university professor suggested giving the area back to the deer.

Shelbee Hendee of Cameron and Jean Othic of Warrensburg talk to a prospect at the National Plastics Exposition in Chicago. Working together, members of the N.W. Roundtable have brought more than 4,000 new jobs to northwest Missouri.

Fortunately there were determined people in northwest Missouri who never gave up. One of those was Jack Briggs, a certified economic development specialist who went to work for N.W. Electric Power Cooperative in 1988. Briggs started a group called the N.W. Roundtable that has been the catalyst for a tremendous rural revival.

When Briggs, manager of business development at the Cameron-based transmission cooperative, came to N.W. Power there were only two economic development people working in the area. His first task was to get more economic development people at work helping their communities.

“One of my first things to do was to go around and say, ‘Hey, you guys need to diversify,’” Briggs says. “A lot of communities would say, ‘we’ve had a bad farm year this year or maybe two bad farm years but next year we are going to get well again.’”

For a century the region’s economy revolved around agriculture, Briggs says. It was a tough sell convincing area leaders times had changed.

“Very few people can make a living on small-acreage farms anymore,” Briggs laments. “It used to be everyone had a few cows, chickens, a milk cow and they raised a garden. That doesn’t happen anymore. He goes to town to work.

Mama may go to town to work. They’ve done away with their livestock, may have CRP land and they go to Wal-Mart for their groceries instead of the garden.”

When farm prices plummeted in the late ’70s and early ’80s displaced farmers began leaving the area in droves. In some areas population dropped by two thirds as farm families moved to the cities looking for work. Those who remained could not provide enough tax support to fund essential services, let alone stem the tide of outmigration.

“We had situations where some counties were going under,” recalls Briggs. “We had some counties that were down to one or two days a week and talking about closing entirely. It was unprecedented.”

While leaders struggled for answers to the region’s plight, Briggs invited the area’s full-time economic development specialists to form the N.W. Roundtable. “We didn’t have a choice,” says Briggs. “We had to do something or die.”

The roundtable has about 36 members, representing electric co-ops, cities, counties, regional planning agencies and others in 25 counties.

“The N.W. Roundtable educates together, markets together and we try to solve each other’s problems,” Briggs says. N.W., through the roundtable, offers scholarships to those full-time employees who go for additional training. It also hosts lunches at all of the meetings and has established a revolving loan fund of more than $1 million to assist their efforts.

One of the problems those working in the field discovered is their budgets were too small to compete with larger areas in the cutthroat world of industrial recruitment. A small town was lucky to have funding for personnel let alone a marketing budget or funds to establish an industrial park. But by joining forces and marketing a region, small budgets became much larger.

The group applied for a USDA grant to fund a labor study. It was the first of its kind and has served as a model for other groups. The next step will be a “skills study” that will show not just how many workers are available but what skills they might have to offer potential employers.

“We had to find ways to market effectively at very little cost,” Briggs says. “We are now in our third month of an electronic marketing effort that is very promising.”

Working together, all sorts of marketing ideas are a possibility. Three years ago the roundtable’s presence at a plastics show in Chicago helped land a new industry that located in St. Joseph, Briggs says. This year they returned to Chicago and this time Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell went with them.

Here they emphasized not only the high education level and availability of the area workforce, but also low electric rates and the other factors important in company decisions.

Maxwell joined them in a luncheon where they talked with site consultants and commercial real estate leaders about northwest Missouri. Maxwell was also there to gain insight into how to bring more jobs and development to Missouri.

“Missouri has suffered tremendous job losses due to the economic downturn,” Maxwell says. “We’ve come together to try to put people back to work by forming partnerships that will help improve Missouri’s ability to attract businesses and jobs. This regional effort is really innovative.”

Rather than competing for scarce industry, members of the group market northwest Missouri to prospects, believing that what benefits one town benefits them all. Briggs says that mentality is unusual.

“There’s no group exactly like ours in the United States,” he says. “We hired a consultant to do a best practices study for us in the hopes they could find other groups like ours. There are none. A lot of it has to do with turf battles. Out here we have a group that doesn’t have a core metro area in it. It’s all rural communities.”

Their cooperation is paying big dividends. Briggs estimates more than 4,000 new jobs have come to northwest Missouri. The population decreases of a decade ago have turned into increases. “What a wonderful change that is,” Briggs says.

More jobs attracting more people to the area led to a new problem — a critical shortage of housing. The group tackled this dilemma by hosting the first-ever rural housing summit in the state — and then a second one that attracted people from four states. Bruce Hensley, North Central Missouri Electric Cooperative’s manager of community and government relations, turned himself into the state’s leading authority on rural housing.

He also helped launch the cooperative’s Auburn Hill housing program, a unique subdivision located near the cooperative’s headquarters in Milan.

The subdivision broke ground in many ways: It was the first truly rural subdivision in the nation. It was the first such project funded by a Community Development Block Grant from the state. And Hensley managed to swing an unprecedented waiver from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that let more working families qualify for home ownership.

More importantly, the project provided a model other communities can follow without the struggles Hensley faced. His efforts have led to a tripling of the energy sold by North Central Missouri Electric Co-op.

Terry Rumery at Farmers’ Electric Co-op in Chillicothe has led the way in the completion of two industrial parks. They now include seven manufacturers and seven other businesses with a total of more than 1,000 new jobs. The investment in those new businesses approaches $100 million.

Projects like these have brought northwest Missouri back from the brink. But Briggs says the work will never be complete. “It’s a never-ending deal,” he says. “As we get people better trained in what they do we will get more aggressive. We’ll have to work harder, but the pendulum swing is back to rural. People are running from crime, they want to get back to the quality of life.”

Rural Missouri | July 2019 Issue

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