Organization discusses how to boost economy despite government budget concerns
How will the Fort Leonard Wood region and Pulaski, Phelps, Laclede and Texas counties in general continue to prosper in spite of looming budget concerns with the federal government?
That was the main topic of discussion Tuesday at the Sustainable Ozarks Partnership's town hall meeting, which had in attendance a large group politicians, business people, state, local and federal government employees and concerned citizens.
"In January, we started the Sustainable Ozarks Partnership (SOP), and thank heavens we did, because 2013 turned into the year we've been worrying about for a long time," explained Steve Tupper, chairman of SOP's executive committee. "This has been one big, year-long jumble of sequestrations, defense cuts, the government shut down, new national security policies and furloughs."
Tupper said the region has definitely felt the impact of the federal budget-related issues.
"The federal impasse has had a pretty big impact here," he said. "We are very dependent of the fort. It underwrites our local economy."
Tupper said the region's best chance of thriving in spite of the issues is to have a plan of action.
"We do have a strategy and an organization that we put together," he said. "And we mean to put ourselves in the very best position we can."
Tupper said in order for the area to prosper and continue to benefit from Fort Leonard Wood, there were four things he would like for everyone to consider.
"We have to be big enough to play in this game," he said. "We have to register on a national and state scale. We have to do it as a region. That's where our workforce lives, plays and goes to school — all four counties."
His second key to success dealt with having an optimistic outlook.
"We have to be very positive about the situation. How we see ourselves and speak about ourselves is how we are seen on a national scale."
His third point was that the region needs to strengthen its economy in general.
"We've got to do everything we can to continue strengthening our own economy. We need to engage industries or employers and create jobs on our own."
Tupper said it is important to focus on the region's costs and how they are more appealing than in other parts of the country.
"We have got to make a great case on cost," he said. "The cost of living, training soldiers, training, energy, fuel, housing."
Joe Driskill, executive director, also addressed the crowd at the town hall meeting.
"We are looking for new ways to convince the military that the Fort Leonard Wood region and Fort Leonard Wood itself is the best place in the country for the Army to sustain its work and be successful," he said.
"None of us think the sky is falling. It's not," he said. "However, there are some definite challenges on the horizon that we're just going to have to face. The bottom line is that the Army is going to be shrinking, and we don't know how much or the impact."
That's why it is vital that the military see the benefits of staying in the region, he said.
Mike Dunbar, president of the Waynesville-St. Robert Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, shared similar sentiments to Driskill and Tupper.
He said it was vital that people face their concerns head-on.
"We've got to be realistic," he said. "To not do so would be naïve. Everything is not doom and gloom. It may look like it right now, but the truth is we have opportunities."
Dunbar said it would take input and support from the entire region to turn things around for the better.
"SOP is all about thinking outside of the box," he said. "Having input from only a few people will no longer get it done. No idea can go unturned."
After the three gentlemen associated with the SOP spoke, some audience members voiced their opinions and suggestions.
Only a handful of ideas for success were discussed, but Driskill said the efforts for the SOP would not be something that would be completed overnight.
"Over a long period of time, we're going to have to work," he said.
One audience member said that it is important that Fort Leonard Wood be seen as "relevant." The attendee said the fort should be seen in this light due to it's high-quality work with national defense and homeland defense.
Another audience member asked what was being done to get the word out about the SOP and its cause. Yet another recommended employing a campaign for the efforts, and possibly having stickers with the organization's logo.
Driskill said the main efforts for spreading the word so far are news releases and an email list that includes 2,500 names, and is still growing.
Another audience member recommended having more accommodating venues for some future discussions. "We need to get people who may not come to this type of forum," the audience member said, referring to the town hall discussion.
Waynesville City Council member Mike France also spoke at the meeting.
France, a retired military man, explained how his family ended up in the region.
"We came here knowing this was going to be my last tour," he said. "We were looking for somewhere to retire. Looking at this community and the state made the decision very easy."
He said the decision was easy due to the area's efforts when it comes to veterans.
"We as a state and community absolutely love veterans," he said. "Not only by what they say, but by what they do."
Another area of discussion at the meeting dealt with the privatization of some services at the fort.
"Every time something gets privatized or developed, there is always the perception of threat," explained Rick Morris, an attendee of the meeting. "People see a real threat whether it's with restaurants or lodging. When it's done on post, it's done on a different competitive level."
Keith Pritchard pointed out that Fort Leonard Wood encompasses more than the Army, and people need to take note of that.
He said Fort Leonard Wood supports the entire Department of Defense. "We need to broaden our funnel and realize this," he said.
Driskill said the organization's work is ongoing. If you'd like to get involved with SOP or make any suggestions, call 573-680-0949, or send an email through the organization's website at www.sustainableozarks.org.