The Rising Tide Lifting Everyone’s Boa

Forming a partnership that will navigate the future of Jefferson City’s economic development.

For more than 20 years, the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce and its members have aimed to grow the city and spur economic development through their local reach and connections. The chamber has also led the charge in drawing outside companies into the area to boost financial growth in the community. Because of that dual focus — which included sharing staff and resources between two separate initiatives — there was friction between what members wanted and what the city needed. That challenge made the Jefferson City Area Chamber Executive Board think outside of the box to investigate and assist in the formation of the Jefferson City Regional Economic Partnership. 

Jeff Davidson, the chamber’s 2021 chairman, says the executive board began talks of separating the chamber of commerce and its economic development functions in 2018. This change would not only shift how things are done in Jefferson City, but in the entire region, given that commuters alone may travel from nearly a 20-mile radius to Jefferson City. 

“It’s our intent to involve that area in economic development as the theme of ‘the rising tide lifting everyone’s boat,’” Davidson says. “So whether or not that devolvement happens in Linn or Ashland, things would be good for everyone involved in the region.”

Under the previous model, shared resources were often seen as an asset. The chamber’s focus on local businesses, networking, and professional development worked in conjunction with other economic development projects and showed the strength in the chamber’s efforts to grow JCMO. 

While many communities handle economic development through their chambers or other government-supported organizations, Davidson says the collaboration of both entities under the Jefferson City Area Chamber created competition for time and resources. 

There are also local chamber members, businesses, and investors who disagree with the notion that the chamber should support outside companies. The purpose of the chamber, in their view, is to strengthen the existing economy and increase opportunities for the businesses and people in the community. Some saw a conflict if, for example, a business came from outside of Cole County but received state and local tax incentives with the help of the Jefferson City Area Chamber. 

 “Maybe a local business would say, ‘I don’t understand why our chamber is helping to bring a business to town that’s competing with me or that’s going to take my workers or cause my wages to be higher,’” Davidson says. 

The same went for economic development investors who questioned the use of funding on parties, barbecues, and networking mixers — events that provide exposure for businesses in the community. In their view, those resources could be used to entice new businesses to make a home in Jefferson City. 

Davidson explains that, to the average resident, it had never been a concern which model of economic growth the city used. “Certainly, those who have voiced a preference would be the chamber members, business community members, and business stakeholders in the community, both public and private,” he says. “They say, essentially, that an entity with a split focus — either from the chamber membership side or from the economic development investor side — causes too much internal strife and not enough transparency for the funder and the member, and two entities with specific focuses are better for them at this point. We heard that loud and clear.”  

Before a final decision was made to separate the organizations, executives attended several retreats in 2019 to discuss the topic. That year, the chamber also sought consulting from Market Street Services and received four reports that aided their decision. 

“Those reports and that information we received from that process really strengthened the position in saying yes,” Davidson says. “At least at this point in time, the best way that they saw for us to tackle economic development was for us to remove it from the chamber and to create what’s called an economic development organization, or EDO — the name of our EDO being the Jefferson City Area Regional Economic Partnership.”  

Having a legally separated entity, where the entire staff will focus on economic development, will remove the feeling of competition. The Jefferson City Area Regional Economic Partnership will be a membership-based 501(c)(6) nonprofit that has a regional focus. While a few members who are on the steering committee for the Jefferson City Area Regional Economic Partnership are also Jefferson City Area Chamber members, such as Davidson and Mayor Carrie Tergin, Davidson ensures this is temporary while they search for a founding board of directors and staff, including a chief executive officer. 

It’s our intent to involve that area in economic development as the theme of ‘the rising tide lifting everyone’s boat.’”
 — Jeff Davidson

“There’s a lot of cross-pollination between the two entities right now on the initial steering committee so we can make sure that it stands up and that both organizations are funded well, fiscally stable, and ready to take on minds of their own and function as standalone entities,” he says. 

The Jefferson City Area Regional Economic Partnership is halfway to their fundraising goal of $600,000 to $700,000. A full transition is planned after the national search for a CEO is complete. 

“We have a very, very high bar for this person,” Davidson says. “Most likely they’ll come from outside the community and be a seasoned professional in economic development — it won’t be their first rodeo at all.”

Maintaining a clear division of duties is high on the priority list. The efforts to expand Jefferson City businesses will remain a key part of the chamber, while both organizations will work in sync on some topics like workforce development. As the chamber assists with training entrepreneurs, the Jefferson City Area Regional Economic Partnership can tackle overall economic issues with an emphasis on economic development and educating interested individuals on the Capital City’s central location and low cost of living. 

The Jefferson City Area Regional Economic Partnership is expected to launch by the second business quarter of the year. Davidson is looking forward to a fresh opportunity. 

“The birth of something new, I think, is always exciting,” he says. “There’s never been this level of public and private money going together to push economic development forward in central Missouri. Seeing what that target budget is for economic development and seeing private dollars come in as well as public dollars — it’s going to be a new level of energy and focus for economic development.”