When it comes to community change, it’s valuable to collect input from all citizens.

Ken Hussey

For many of us, the companies and organizations we work for or serve are guided by a plan that sets a course for the coming months and years. These plans often include a review of relevant data that is used to construct goals and actions to achieve them. Also critical to developing a plan is to hear from key stakeholders about what they see as challenges and opportunities for the organization. Finally, the plan is assembled and shared, with an opportunity for those within the organization to solidify their buy-in on the direction the organization is headed. 

A community is not much different than an organization when it comes to planning and setting a course for the future. And right now, Jefferson City is undergoing this review process in multiple ways, with a focus on economic development and community planning. 

The Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce is leading the charge in regards to a new economic development plan for the community. Over the past few months, the chamber (in consultation with Market Street Strategies) has hosted various forums for key stakeholders to gather input about Jefferson City. There was an online survey that was made available to the public, and it generated over 1,600 responses. Market Street also conducted an environmental scan, benchmarking Jefferson City against peer communities. The steering committee is now reviewing all of this data and feedback, analyzing to determine what it’s saying to us, and contemplating where we want the numbers to be moving forward. 

So what is the data and feedback saying? Overall, our community is not in dire straits. Our economy is fairly stable, the unemployment rate remains low, overall educational attainment is strong, and we have seen some economic growth. But we are not growing as fast as other communities, our population growth is minimal, labor force participation has declined in recent years, and overall wage growth has not kept pace with other communities. There are many opportunities presented in the data that are worth exploring in regards to entrepreneur support, improving quality of place, fostering strong relationships with higher education institutions, and more. 

The survey and stakeholder interviews also gathered feedback regarding quality of life and place, with an appreciation for our parks, sidewalks and trails, commute time, and much more. Respondents also indicated a desire to see improvement in many of these areas as well, and as committee members, we know that quality of place is critical to any economic strategy for a community. 

This is where the efforts of the City of Jefferson start to align with this overall planning process. The city is undergoing an extensive review of its Comprehensive Plan, which is a guiding document for many decisions made by city staff and the city council. The plan sets a course for how particular areas should be zoned long term, whether an investment should be made in key infrastructure such as sidewalks, how we can address our affordable housing crisis, where greenspaces and parks should be located, and much more. The comprehensive plan in our community has not been updated for more than two decades, and much has changed since then. It is critical for the plan to be relevant and in line with the economic plans for the community as well.

At the same time, city staff have conducted interviews, hosted public forums, and also provided an online survey to gather input from a diverse group of people regarding quality of place, which is critical to an economic plan. This process offers a forum for folks to share what the community’s strengths and weaknesses are, what opportunities are on the horizon, and what they see as potential game changers for the community.

These types of exercises also pose some challenging questions for each of us that need to be contemplated and examined. We often will say we want economic growth, new jobs, and increased population. But at the same time, we express how much we value short commutes, a small-town feel, and the current environment. How do we balance what can seem like competing interests? How can we support business growth and expansion while not sacrificing the quality of place we value and appreciate? Economic growth can bring with it new challenges on a community, and one goal of planning is to prepare for these. With a diverse collection of voices involved in the planning process, we can chart a course that moves the community forward while not giving up what makes it special. However, we need to be realistic in that the ideas put forth may make some uncomfortable. But a community that is standing still is actually a community that is falling behind.

The latter half of 2019 has been focused on hearing from the community through surveys, public forums, focus groups, and stakeholder interviews. All of this data and feedback is writing the current chapter of the story of Jefferson City. As we move into 2020, the process shifts to writing the next chapter for our community. The Chamber Steering Committee will begin a review of the plan being crafted in partnership with our consultant and seek more input and guidance from the community. As the city updates its comprehensive plan, there will be many opportunities for public input and feedback. City council meetings are open to the public, with time set aside each meeting for members of the public to address the council on any topic. Participation by all in the community is encouraged, especially since the strategies being put in place will impact our community for years to come. It is an exciting time for all to provide their voice to this conversation about where we are going over the next decade.