The beginning of the new decade didn’t go the way anyone had expected, with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on both small and large businesses, as well as consumers. With 2020 officially in the rearview mirror, local leaders are looking forward to what the next decade in Columbia will look like, and how the road there will be paved with improvements.
Inside Columbia Publisher Emeritus Fred Parry hosted a CEO Roundtable at Zimmer Communications with 11 local business leaders and entrepreneurs who are up and comers in Columbia’s business scene: those who have a vested interest in seeing how Columbia grows and prospers over the next decade.
The event was sponsored by The Broadway Hotel; the hotel’s award-winning Chef Jeff Guinn catered the meal that accompanied the conversation.
Attendees included business owners and leaders from the health care, agriculture, entertainment, real estate and development industries. The big question on everyone’s mind? What should Columbia look like 10 years from now?
To answer this question, Inside Columbia conducted an online survey that polled more than 400 readers on their thoughts and visions for Columbia. The number one concern: crime. “Real or imagined, the perception is that Columbia has a significant crime problem,” Parry says. Other concerns included public infrastructure, race relations, youth opportunities, public schools and affordable housing, ranked in order of importance.
The Link Between Crime and Poverty
Jay Sparks, entrepreneurship coordinator at REDI, says Columbia is making strides toward improving crime and mental health in Columbia. “Chief Jones is putting in the mental health task force currently and I think that’s a great step,” he says. “Does it solve all the problems? No, but I think it puts Columbia maybe more in the camp of forward thinking and looking ahead of things.
“But,” he continues, “an awful lot of voices in Columbia don’t feel like they’re getting heard. Listened to and heard are different. There’s a huge demographic in Columbia of people who may or may not be blue collar, but their earning potential is under our county or our city average wage. People who don’t see home ownership as an option, so they’re stuck renting in areas of town that they might not think are desirable. They have a feeling of being stuck in life a little bit and I think sometimes if crime is occurring and you don’t feel like you’re being heard, all of that starts to dovetail and I think you see a snowball going down a hill.”
Billy Polansky, executive director of Columbia Center For Urban Agriculture, further explains the link between poverty and crime. “At CCUA, we work with a lot of low income families, and in my personal life, too, I’m a foster parent,” he says. “So what I’ve seen through that experience is kids in foster care, they’re there because of poverty. And I think really our root cause of crime is poverty. How can we support families and get them out of poverty and part of that is jobs that pay well but also provide things like child care. It’s all generational poverty. We have to break that cycle. Crime is going to go down if we do that.”
According to Parry, Columbia/Boone County has a poverty rate of about 17%. One organization that is helping low-income families in Columbia is Love Columbia, formerly known as Love INC.
“Love Columbia takes people who are in cycles of poverty and deep in crisis and helps with the short-term and the long-term, and they coordinate services around a family and try to get them up and out of that immediate thing that’s causing them a problem,” Brent Beshore, Founder/CEO of Permanent Equity, says. Situations range from being evicted to drug addictions to abuse. “Love Columbia says we obviously want to address that, that’s the pain point, but we also want to come around you and get to know you and develop a relationship. I think one of the things in the city is we talk past each other a whole lot. What it really comes down to is relationships.”
One of Love Columbia’s ventures, Love Coffee, seeks to help meet employment needs in the community, another necessity to lower the poverty rate by creating economic opportunity. Columbia’s lack of an onramp to sustainable employment for people without developed skill sets is concerning, Beshore says.
“If you don’t come in with skills already, it’s really difficult to find jobs in this town that lead somewhere up and out.” One of his suggestions is to create a highly specialized call center in town that would enable people to work their way up to making a relatively high salary through upward mobility. “I think that would be a game-changer,” he says.
Existing businesses can also better partner with nonprofits to further improve their impact on the community, says Dr. John Miles of Columbia Orthopaedic Group. The group is working to get a Love Coffee kiosk in the lobby that will create more job opportunities and revenue for Love Columbia. “I noticed that there was a key thing missing when I visited Love Coffee,” he says. “That was patrons. So, it occurred to me that we might be able to help their problem by placing a kiosk in our lobby that is regularly full of people with not much else to do. I think this partnership might radically improve their overall revenue situation. I have heard rumors that VU, and perhaps Shelter Insurance, are talking about similar ventures.
Hand-in-hand with community relationships, another key area to increase quality of life in Columbia is public amenities. According to the Inside Columbia survey, Columbians believe the most critically needed public amenities are more police officers on the street and vocational school/job training. Other requested amenities included an improved airport, comprehensive mental health services, a permanent homeless shelter, conference convention center, enhanced public transit system and ice skating rink.
Even with concerns about crime and poverty, Columbia is still a vibrant and attractive place to live, Jay Lindner, owner of Lindner Properties, says. “We’re still growing and Veterans United obviously is a big factor in that, the University having continued increased enrollment and Boone Hospital. We have to make sure that we remain the health care magnet for this part of Missouri and keep supporting the University as we get events back in and True/False and Roots N Blues and all of those kinds of events. That adds to why people want to locate here.”
Adonica Coleman, owner of A2D Events and business coach for the Women’s Business Center, part-time director of community outreach for Broadway Christian Church and a board member of Granny’s House and the Bold Academy, says her investment in the community is because of her four daughters. “I would hope that if any one of them chooses to stay here that 10, 20 years from now that this would be a place that they would want to be, want to stay and want to continue to help grow.”
Locally owned businesses play a huge role in quality of life and things to do in Columbia as well. Recent frustrations amid the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated some local business owners’ issues with local and federal government. “I don’t really feel that small business has any kind of representation in our political system,” Gina Rende, Realtor with MALY Commercial Realty, says. “Obviously the bars and restaurants are struggling beyond belief, but I feel like that is kind of across the country right now that small businesses don’t have that representation. It’s just really sad because I felt that that was the point of America. I’m hopeful that maybe we can see some change with that if we have some more business minded political leaders on City Council.”
Inconsistencies in regulations and mandates have left certain businesses struggling more than others. “Bars and entertainment are the ones hit the hardest,” Nic Parks, owner of Parks Amusements, says. “On the entertainment side, when I thought we were trying to get Level Up opened and all these things, now I feel we’re going to lose some. We’re going to not have things for people to do.”
Businesses can’t continue struggling without any clear end or direction in sight, according to Lindner. “We deserve at this point to know when and how are we going to get back to some kind of normalcy,” he says. State legislation being introduced could make longer restrictions more difficult to keep in place. For Nick Orscheln, real estate manager of Orscheln Farm & Home, this is a good thing. “Columbia has been overly restrictive, on the state level they’re at least addressing it. This community relies on the tax dollars and the jobs generated from our bars and restaurants.”
Columbia’s Leadership Struggles
Compared to surrounding cities, Columbia has had many more restrictions in place during the pandemic, prompting some business owners and consumers to take their business elsewhere.
According to Parks, “I’m asking the city to look at dreamers, look at entrepreneurs and if I want to build a children’s museum or an aquarium or a big ice skating rink complex here in Columbia and I want to put dollars to work towards that, I want to get some nods like ‘yes, let’s talk, let’s look at rezoning, what makes sense’ versus not even holding a meeting,” he says.
Coleman agreed with the need for more communication between business owners and local government. “I don’t know if we need a convention center where there is a meeting of people once monthly like the ones on this roundtable, who are involved in making big ideas come true, but something like that because I believe there’s power in a group like this,” she says. “We may not all agree on the same things, but we all have a vision for where we want Columbia to be in 10 years.”
For Parks, that vision extends outside of Columbia. “As a company we’re thinking about what can we invest entertainment-wise at the Lake or outside of Columbia. That’s unfortunate, because I love Columbia.” One such example is Parks’ newest venture: Lakeside, which he is building in Ashland.
Craig Riordan, vice president of Coil Construction, believes other business owners will follow suit. “I think more of the successful business owners are going to feel that way, diversify out of Columbia, because they’re concerned about when the next hurdle happens, is Columbia going to support me through it or are they going to make it more difficult?”
Realtor Rende echoes this sentiment.“ Ashland has been giving incentives and that’s why they’re getting business over the City of Columbia,” she says. “We are competing with a lot of other towns for this business. We aren’t going to get a lot of those big retailers. How do we get those meetings?”
According to Parry, one of the things that we see local government doing is focus on telling business owners the reasons why they can’t do something versus saying here’s what we can do and here’s how you get it done.
Dr. Miles is also concerned with Columbia’s anti-business environment. “We’ve become really hostile to business, which is problematic,” he says. “We’re all really proud of our town, but we’ve got to get with the program. If you’re not growing, you’re probably dying.”
The good news is that some businesses, both in and outside of Columbia, are growing and developing. One example would be Ranken Technical College’s plan to come to Ashland. “That’s really exciting as a business owner,” Tim Crockett, owner of Crockett Engineering Consultants, says. “I think it will not only help fill open positions that we have at our companies, but also help propel folks who may not have certain skill sets.”
Lindner recently brought a new business to Columbia: an Apple store called Simply Mac. “I think John Glascock is making things better,” he says. “I’m hopeful that if we get City Council processes improved further, some of these businesses will want to come
Entrepreneurs such as Parks are part of the solution as well, Lindner continues. “We need more entrepreneurs that want to come in and open a business and invest their time and energy, because it’s not easy getting things off the ground. There’s not enough people in our community that are interested in doing those kinds of things.
“I would love to figure out how we can encourage more of that, and some of that may start by not shaming people when they fail. We do a lot of that in this community. If somebody fails, we like to point it out. You know what? Entrepreneurs are going to fail. You’ve just got to get back up and keep going.”
What is your big idea that we ought to get in place by 2030 to improve Columbia?
“Communication is key. We all have a vision for where we want Columbia to be in 10 years and if that means that we need to have a continual conversation about it so that we can see what can be done behind the scenes to move us forward, then I think that that is super important.” – Adonica Coleman, A2D Events
“I would love to see the gulf between on-campus and off-campus diminish. Mizzou needs to be a resource and open their doors to the community because from a workforce and population standpoint, they are truly a resource.” – Jay Sparks, REDI
“You can find somebody to teach you how to do anything in Columbia and typically for free but where do you find all of those resources? If we had one place to get all of that, I think that would be huge.” – Gina Rende, MALY Commercial Realty
“I would just like a bigger, feasible master plan for infrastructure, roads, utilities, because local people who are proud of their community will find a way to get things done.” – Craig Riordan, Coil Construction
“I agree we need more job creation, not just more on the medical and the university front but the full gamut of salaries for various positions.” – Nick Orscheln, Orscheln Farm & Home
“One of the things we lack in this town is an onramp to sustainable employment for people. Jobs like highly specialized call centers that have upward mobility I think would be a big game changer.” – Brent Beshore, Permanent Equity
“We’ve got to get better relations with the city, including our permitting process and just the unknowns that we still face when we’re trying to bring businesses in.” – Jay Lindner, Lindner Properties
“Columbia is uniquely and geographically positioned for a major sports park; it’s a really obvious thing we haven’t done that would create more entertainment and civic activities.” – John Miles, MD, Columbia Orthopaedic Group
“We need more business leadership in key positions on boards and commissions in Columbia and Boone County. Most of the largest contributors in this community are some of the biggest business minded individuals.” – Tim Crockett, Crockett Engineering Consultants
“We need a task force for some of these key issues with business leaders and people who have can-do attitudes about fixing those problems. It shouldn’t just be the people who show up at City Council meetings that have a voice.” – Nic Parks, Parks Amusements
“In terms of jobs and poverty, having some way to attract more types of blue collar, or not college degree required jobs is something we really need, because there’s a base of people here who have nothing to do with the university, but they’re our community too.” – Billy Polansky, Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture