Former President Ronald Reagan called them the nine most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Mike Downing isn’t afraid to say those words. And he does want to help.
Missouri’s economic development chief is an unabashed cheerleader for government efforts to bring in new business — and new jobs — to the Show-Me State. Sworn in as director of the Department of Economic Development in February, 59-year-old Downing has spent his entire career talking up Missouri’s business climate, its products and its workforce.
“We’ve gone overboard getting these industries to notice us,” Downing says.
Downing makes a habit of going overboard to achieve a goal. A Bootheel native, he was born in tiny Bragg City and grew up on a cotton farm near Kennett. When he left home for college at Arkansas State University in 1972, Downing went out for football, even though he hadn’t played in high school. Self-taught as a placekicker, he started as a freshman. By 1975, the Red Wolves were undefeated, but the Southland Conference team’s 11-0 record still did not secure it an automatic bowl game bid. Arkansas State missed out on post-season play that year.
“We were the only undefeated Division 1 team that didn’t go to a bowl game,” Downing recalls.
The snub reportedly was the driving force in creation of the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., in 1976.
Downing “majored in almost everything” in college, he says, finally settling on a degree in physical education, health and recreation.
“I thought I was going to be a football coach,” he says. Instead, his career path took him into economic development, coaching businesses instead of athletes. He began graduate work at the University of Missouri, working toward a master’s degree in public administration. After two semesters, Downing’s career detoured back to the Bootheel for some on-the-job experience on the area’s six-county regional planning commission.
“We worked up economic development plans for the area, acquired grants and focused on infrastructure,” he says.
He remained in the Bootheel for three more years before making his way to Jefferson City and the seat of state government. Downing joined the Department of Economic Development in 1982, where he has served under seven governors. He was hired to administer the community development block grant program, then moved on to manage the department’s business finance section.
“It grew to a larger scope to include incentives and high-tech programs,” Downing says. “We were focused on business development — both attracting new companies to the state and expanding existing businesses.”
Downing spent about a dozen years marketing Missouri to the rest of the world. Along the way, he finished his master’s degree at MU. By 2008, he was ready for a new challenge and became the first executive director of Missouri CORE (Connecting Our Regional Economy), which was then a new regional economic development agency for Boone, Callaway, Cole, Audrain and Cooper counties. CORE works to attract new businesses, promote major projects with a regionwide economic impact and assist communities in the expansion of existing and startup businesses.
When he returned to the Department of Economic Development in late 2009, Downing was named deputy director and tasked with developing a strategic plan for attracting economic growth to Missouri. It’s a strategy that has endured as Downing moved up in agency leadership to acting director last year and his current position as director.
With a three-pronged focus on business attraction and expansion, workforce development and import growth, Downing says Missouri’s economic development plan is a good fit for the Show-Me State.
“Missouri workers are very productive and cost-efficient,” Downing says. “They have the skills companies want. Missouri is in a prime location with a low cost of living, low energy costs and low tax rate.
“And,” he adds, “Missouri offers good incentives.”
The state’s incentives programs — what Downing calls “the cost of doing business” — are the reason Missouri has vaulted to the top 10 lists of many economic ranking services. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Missouri outpaced all eight adjacent neighbor states in employment growth last year. For the past two years, the Show-Me State has led the nation in technical jobs created.
To create those jobs, Downing’s department has developed partnerships with agencies such as mid-Missouri’s Regional Economic Development Inc., the University of Missouri, local community colleges and trade schools, the MU Life Science Business Incubator and Missouri Technology Corp. Amped-up export services are creating new international markets for Missouri goods, he adds. And last August, the state rolled out Missouri Works, a revamped incentive program to attract and retain businesses in Missouri. Site certification and a work-ready populace add enticement to the incentive program.
“We’ve put together a package of services that is enough to win a project,” Downing says, “but not enough to give away the farm.”
The CoMo Connection
So what do the state’s economic development efforts mean for Columbia businesses?
“There’s a lot we can do for Columbia,” says Missouri’s economic development chief Mike Downing. “Contact the department before you apply, and we can walk you through any of our programs.
Find out more at the Missouri Business Portal, www.business.mo.gov.
The new Missouri Works program consolidated four business incentive programs and three workforce programs to streamline and improve the state’s business development incentives. It features more flexibility and lower thresholds for businesses to meet incentive requirements. The program provides significant tax benefits for new and existing companies that are creating and retaining jobs in Missouri, including retention of state withholding tax for a set number of years, and a forever sales tax credit for new equipment and energy purchases in the manufacturing sector.
The bar for minimum job creation has been lowered to 10 new employees; in rural areas (mid-Missouri counties excluding Boone) and enhanced enterprise zones, the hiring minimum is two new employees.
Eligible businesses are primary companies that compete outside the local market and bring in new money to the area. Primary companies may be involved in technology, research or manufacturing, or they may maintain an office or headquarters in the community. Local retail and food and beverage outlets generally do not qualify as primary companies, Downing says.
Certified Work Ready Communities
ACT Inc., which administers the American College Test, has developed the Work Keys Test that “analyzes and rates what is required for every job imaginable,” Downing says. The three-part test covers math, reading comprehension and information gathering; minimum scores are set to indicate chances of success in various fields, documented by the National Career Readiness Certificate.
Downing says 1,200 companies nationwide are now using the test as a consideration in hiring. “It’s an opportunity for job applicants to demonstrate their skills,” Downing says. “Employers like it because the test leaves them with less risk.”
The Certified Work Ready Communities initiative is a voluntary program guided by key community leaders to attract, retain and develop an educated and skilled workforce. If a certain percentage of the community’s workforce attains the National Career Readiness Certificate, it is designated a Certified Work Ready Community, indicating a superior skill level in the local workforce. Currently, four Missouri counties are Certified Work Ready Communities; another 37 — including Boone — are in the process of becoming certified. Locally, the tests are available at Columbia Area Career Center and Moberly Area Community College.
With 11 trade offices in foreign countries, Missouri has boosted its international presence to raise its level of exports. Targeted import markets include Brazil, Canada, China, Europe, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.
“Missouri exports increased 133.8 percent from 2005 to 2012,” Downing says. “Again, that’s product going out and money coming in. These countries also have companies looking to establish facilities in the United States. If they’re already doing export business with us … well, we’re really pushing flyover country to them as a central location for such facilities.”
In 2012, businesses in the Columbia area exported $296 million in goods, including agricultural products, fabricated metal parts, transportation equipment, machinery, electronic components and computer software.
The Missouri International Trade & Investment Office offers assistance to Missouri exporters in trade counseling, distributor searches, business protocol, market research, export finance, developing leads, trade and catalog shows, trade missions, directory listings, and documentation and due diligence support.
Economic Development Director Mike Downing proudly points to Missouri’s auto industry when showing where the state’s recruitment and incentive efforts are paying off. Feared dead just last decade, production has soared like a phoenix, shaking off its funereal cloak as both Ford and General Motors have reopened and retooled assembly lines for new vehicle models.
The 2010 Missouri Manufacturing Jobs Act, which provides tax incentives for companies that invest in plants in the state, enticed Ford Motor Co. to invest $1.1 billion in its Claycomo plant near Kansas City. New assembly lines for the Ford Transit and a new, lighter F-150 truck means an additional 2,000 automotive jobs in the area, Downing says, softening the blow of Ford’s decision to move Escape production to Louisville, Ky.
In eastern Missouri, General Motors began hiring hundreds of auto workers in January to fill needs in its Wentzville plant, where production will begin soon on two redesigned midsize pickups — the Chevrolet Colorado and the GMC Canyon — that were previously produced in Shreveport, La. The truck lines are additions to the Wentzville plant, which currently produces the Chevy Express and GMC Savana vans. Since 2011, General Motors has promised to invest $113 million in the plant. That translates to 1,600 jobs retained and another 1,600 added, Downing says.
Another 15 auto-related suppliers have announced plans to set up shop in Missouri to serve those plants.
“We’ve had a concentrated focus on the auto industry the past few years,” Downing says. “The governor has attended — and spoken at — the last three auto shows in Detroit. The industry is booming and we’re getting a lot of response — really, more than our share of attention.”
We’re No. 1
Last December, the California think tank Milken Institute put Columbia at the top of its list of “Best Performing Small Cities.” The Institute’s index measures employment growth in 200 large cities and 179 small metros where wage and salary growth reflect the quality of jobs created and sustained.
Milken noted Columbia’s employment in high-tech industries such as telecommunications had grown by 60 percent between 2007 and 2012. Employment in professional, scientific and technical services increased by 1,450 jobs over the same period. The city’s increasing student population has helped return construction activity to near prerecession levels, says the Milken report, and has bolstered the local retail sector; food and beverage stores have grown by 150 percent from 2007 to 2012 — a higher growth rate than in any other metro area.
Missouri Technology Corp.
Missouri Technology Corporation is a public-private partnership created by the Missouri General Assembly to promote entrepreneurship and foster the growth of new and emerging high-tech companies. It focuses on bioscience industries that build on Missouri’s history in agriculture. Since 2010, MTC has invested in more than 40 companies, says Economic Development Director Mike Downing, dispensing $14 million in seed and venture capital that has leveraged $90 million for those same projects.
MOSourceLink is a resource clearinghouse that connects small-business owners with a network of business-building services. It maintains a database to facilitate links between resource organizations and established, emerging and startup small businesses throughout Missouri.