The Business Person’s Business Person

KRCG-TV’s Columbia Bureau Chief Mark Slavit recently sat down with Columbia Chamber of Commerce President Don Laird for a conversation about recent growth and opportunities for the local economy

What holiday expectations do you have for Columbia retailers?

I’m very optimistic. Columbia has grown. We have a lot of different types of retail around here. It’s an attraction for people in our area to come to Columbia. We have new retail stores and restaurants opening.

Do you think people are more attracted to the downtown area or to other retail spots throughout the city?

I think the attraction is the same. We have a real strong downtown. People go there for specialty items that are more popular down there. Every Columbia retail store gets a lot of consumer response. We are the envy of many other surrounding communities. We have a good retail mix.

Are you happy with the downtown parking situation?

The Columbia Chamber of Commerce has not been involved with the downtown parking situation. The idea is to make it easy and comfortable to have access and stay in our downtown area. Some people can argue about the height of the new garage and other parking structures. I think the parking situation is very good.

City leaders recently increased downtown parking meter fees. Do you think that was a good idea?

There are always going to be people complaining about the price. The fact of the matter is that you need to have turnover. You need to have numerous people have access to parking. We have to answer the question: When is it done? Is it done at 6 p.m. or 5:02 p.m. or 4:58 p.m.? I think it’s important to have a uniform time so people are comfortable using the parking meters.

Looking back on 2011, how have Columbia’s economic development efforts fared?

They’ve gone well. Members of Regional Economic Development Inc., or REDI, have been really good about bringing some good names to our city. They haven’t stopped. They continue to attract researchers and investors to Columbia.

We have several new stores and restaurants including Big Lots and Texas Roadhouse. Anything else coming?

We are definitely going to see more. You’ll see startups here. You’ll also see people moving in, mainly because they like our demographics. Our demographics fit many company profiles. When the economy gets even stronger, I think you will see a lot more. There is space available. As we grow with a population of 108,500 people, there is an appeal to certain companies.

The recent census put us over the 100,000 mark in population. Is that a magic number to some companies?

Some people think that number attracts more business. I don’t think so. I think companies think more in terms of our total market area. They also look at the average age here. Many people think of students when they think of Columbia. We also have more than 800 physicians and plenty of insurance company employees. All of those people together make an interesting arrangement for companies.

The University of Missouri is moving to the Southeast Conference from the Big 12. How will that impact Columbia businesses?

People worry about a lack of hotel rooms. I think our hotel industry will be able to accommodate the situation quite well. The football stadium will have to expand. SEC fans travel well. I think it will be great. You have to remember that when we are talking football we are only talking six weekends. The hotel business is not just built on that. We have two new hotels going up downtown.

It will be interesting to see if people in Columbia are interested in a change in culture. I have never been to an SEC game. Some people joke that it would be a good place to wear a tie and a white shirt. I look forward to it. Missouri is the fourth largest school out of 14 institutions in the SEC.

Will we have to expand more than the football stadium with the SEC move?

A lot of the finances in this town are football driven. I think the university will be making changes at the stadium. We can expect that. We’ve been very fortunate over the last 15 years with Athletic Director Mike Alden. We’ve seen a lot of good changes with his help. People will probably grumble and gripe because prices will probably change. I think the end result will be a better visibility for the University of Missouri nationally.

How would you rate Columbia’s overall quality of life?

I think it’s excellent. A lot of it is tied to our schools in both public and private education. That’s good. The downside as you grow is more visibility with crime. Overall, our community is in great shape. Every governmental unit in the country is having some financial difficulties. When you look at Columbia’s parks, trails and other amenities that we have, it’s great. The only thing we don’t have is an ice rink. Those aren’t cheap.

You are a proud Vietnam vet. Do you think our veterans get the praise they deserve in Columbia?

I think they do. There’s been a big change compared to when I came back. We have a lot services here from the VA to the VFW to other organizations in town that work with them. I’m really proud of the ones that offer the Honor Flight to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. The Salute to Veterans parade is a big deal. All of that together honors veterans a heck of a lot better than when I served. I’m happy about that. Not every community has a veteran’s hospital. I got some hearing aids there.

If you could look into a crystal ball, what would you see for Columbia in 2012?

I know a number of things that will be coming up. You will see a lot of emphasis on the airport. REDI will be doing a lot of things that are not only attractive to people who want to come here, but make it convenient for people who want to travel from here. The airport is a high priority for next year.

This series of one-on-one interviews with compelling local newsmakers is a cooperative effort of Inside Columbia magazine and our media partner, KRCG-TV13.

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