May 01, 2009  BY Mike Martin
Mike Martin, a Columbia resident and science journalist, can be reached at Mike.martin@weeklyscientist.com

Mike Martin, a Columbia resident and science journalist, can be reached at Mike.martin@weeklyscientist.com

Columbia city manager Bill Watkins wrote a letter in support of a $1.3 million sewer project on official city letterhead … to himself?

Strangely enough, such a letter appeared at the April 20 City Council meeting in response to a request by the Columbia Area Jobs Foundation (CAJF) to extend city sewer services to a site east of Rangeline Road.

As a public-private, non-profit economic development partnership that has charged itself with securing so-called “shovel ready” sites for manufacturing and other business enterprises, CAJF hopes to acquire the 20-acre Rangeline-area site along with about 140 more acres to “create an employer center that is ready for business attraction,” according to the group’s president, commercial realtor Paul Land.

Watkins wrote a letter to CAJF supporting the idea and formally lobbied the City Council on the organization’s behalf, even penning an all-important “staff report” on the issue.

But “H. William Watkins, Columbia City Manager” is on the CAJF Board of Directors. A CAJF letter from Land to Watkins asking for the city’s support came on CAJF letterhead imprinted with Watkins’ name and title. He replied by sending a City of Columbia letter supporting the project to CAJF and, essentially, himself.

Beside potential conflicts of interest, what else is wrong with this picture? Simple. When doing business in Columbia has become such an insider’s game that participants are writing letters to themselves, laudable goals like attracting outside businesses are hampered from the start.

Ol’ Boys Club

In our global economy, you’ve probably heard the adage, “Think globally; act locally.”

But like many business organizations in provincial Midwestern towns, CAJF is thinking not only locally but also hyper-locally. The group’s board of directors reads like a who’s whom of long-time locals: construction honcho Larry Moore, Central Missouri Development Council Director Don Stamper, bank bigwigs Jeff MacLellan and Steve Erdel, flooring impresario Dave Griggs, marketing maven Mike Vangel, Land and Watkins. What’s more, the group’s registered agent is Erick Creach, a Craig van Matre attorney who also represents long-time local developers.

Let’s say I’m a savvy, out-of-state business owner looking to relocate in Columbia. I’m pushing 40 with a Stanford MBA by way of MU. I have a young family and a 400-employee company that manufactures little screens for iPods. I’ve always thought Columbia was a great town. Hunting around for shovel-ready sites, I’m directed to CAJF.

The Columbia I remember – full of students, the ultimate outsiders, who push every envelope trying to break in – isn’t the Columbia I rediscover. Compared to CAJF, I’m a total outsider full of new ideas that only seem to muster harrumphs or polite smiles. How comfortable am I going to be?

I might need a Craig van Matre to hold my hand, but do I need a whole group of insiders pointing me where they want to point me and showing me what they want to show?

Do I need to know the city manager to get stuff approved? If I don’t hire so-and-so’s brother, am I dead in the water? If most of these guys work for developers, are they directing me to this or that building site for my good or theirs?

At what point am I the odd man out? At what point do I need to start asking, “Who’s lookin’ out for me?”

Business leaders seeking new deals or new partners routinely ask these questions. Without encouraging answers, they don’t walk away – they run.

What Markets Hate Most

On observing the brouhaha over the insider group that schemed to get downtown Columbia land for a new State Historical Society museum, a friend of mine made a cogent point. “What do markets and businesses hate most?” he asked. “Uncertainty.”

Chronic “insiderism” introduces tremendous uncertainty to the business environment, he said, especially for newcomers, the people Columbia wants to woo. Uncertainty about whom they need to know rather than certainty about what they have to sell. Uncertainty about whether it’s merit – or connections – that really count.

As long as doing business here is such an insider’s game, Columbia will run in place. We’ll continue creating the jobs and opportunities that make our insiders most comfortable. Because few of those jobs have been high tech or manufacturing based in the past, there’s little reason to believe they will be in the future.

Our insiders like to get loans and tax breaks, build stuff and rent it out. Nothing wrong with that, but manufacturing plants don’t produce the rental income that big-box retailers do. Manufacturers don’t bring in significant sales taxes either and so are never likely to be a big priority for city or county government. And though big retailers may pay big rents, retail jobs don’t pay much, so wages in Insider Columbia aren’t likely to rise.

What’s more, companies like Google and Apple start small, not on shovel-ready sites.

But back to me, the hypothetical MU grad thinking about coming back. Now that I’ve been around the block and have seen how insider deals can maul newcomers, I decide to look at communities that value me for my merit and not whom I know. If I wanted that, I’d be in pictures, not starting companies in my grandma’s garage.

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