Where Business Makes Sense

The Shawnee Economic Development Foundation
Written by Mark Golombek

The truth of the matter is that in order for a community to succeed in economic development, you have to invest in infrastructure and upgrades. You need to recognize which industries drive your economy, and nurture them. You are also trying to bring in more business, and if the first two imperatives are met, then everything else should fall in line.
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The Shawnee Economic Development Foundation serves as an example of how to intertwine these needs for the betterment of the community. We learned more from its Executive Director, Tim Burg.

The Shawnee Economic Development Foundation was begun in the 1950s by a group of business leaders who wanted to increase the economic development prosperity of the area. It has taken twists and turns from its inception, going from an industrial authority to an economic development foundation, with different leaders placing varying emphasis on aspects of retail and industry recruitment.

“Since the origins of this community date back to the late 1800s, Shawnee has always been fairly aggressive at trying to grow the business side of things,” says Tim. He describes Shawnee as an ‘edge city.’ It is close to the metro area, but still retains a rural aspect and is recognized as the last frontier of the eastern gateway to the Oklahoma City metro area.

Shawnee lies within the valley around the North Canadian River in the state of Oklahoma. The river courses through Oklahoma City and travels east, allowing for the type of topography that makes it easier for businesses to build, houses to be erected and retail to flourish. In other words, it is flat, with low rolling hills. Proximity to water from the North Canadian River helped with agricultural potential. The land around here has been fruitful for a long time and still is.

Part of this area includes a region known as Cross Timbers, a thick area of woods in the shape of a cross that stretches from southeastern Kansas across Oklahoma and into Texas. At one point, there was a cattle trail that came through this area, called the Shawnee Trail. Commerce has taken place here long before Oklahoma was a state.

This was once a major railroad town. At its peak, there were five railroads operating through Shawnee. The Choctaw, Rock Island and Sante Fe Railroads had maintenance facilities here, and the railroads initiated a great deal of the economic development prosperity in the region.

“Raw materials would come in, and finished goods were shipped out along with agricultural products. People would be transported back and forth from other areas in the community, as a good highway system was not as of yet in place,” says Tim.

Manufacturing sprang up to process the bounty of agricultural products, as Shawnee was able to ship in large quantities of wheat, corn and other grains. Shawnee Milling Company has been making flour and other products here for over one hundred years. Also of note is an industry that can claim to be the last of its kind in the U.S.: Overalls manufacturer, Round House.

“Round House Overalls started because the workers from the five railroads needed work clothes. They still make those garments today here in Shawnee. They are the last overalls manufacturer in the U.S. and have been in operation for 100 years as well,” says Tim.

“I call it added value when you take a raw material like corn and grind it up into a commodity that consumers use. Same thing with overalls or other products, and we can go down the list, but necessity created a lot of the economic prosperity,” says Tim.

The manufacturing base is diverse and growing. There are more than seventy manufacturers in the county, ranging from small operations with one to two people who add value to a product to companies with as many as 550 employees. Most, if not all, of the larger manufacturers ship products all over the world. Shawnee is not waiting to be a part of the global economy; it is already entrenched in it.

There are four internationally owned companies in Shawnee. Having Foreign Direct Investment in the community changes the financial dynamics, because the community is not just depending on the U.S. economy, but is tied to events taking place all over the world. One of those companies, Georg Fischer, has recently invested over $40 million in upgrading their facility and locating their R&D Center for all of the Americas in Shawnee.

At the time of the interview, Shawnee had twenty different housing subdivisions in some stage of development. Some are coming to an end, or just starting, and others are in the second or third phases. There are also a host of new retail and commercial projects in and around the community.

“A lot of variables drive all of this. Some of it is for the population that lives here and also works in the manufacturing facilities, hospitals, schools or in the retail growth that we are seeing. Our proximity to Oklahoma City allows us to be a part of the metro area and also to be a bedroom community for it, which is growing at a phenomenal rate,” says Tim.

Lists of the top ten growing communities in the U.S. include Oklahoma City and they have maintained that status for some time. Shawnee benefits from that as well.

Another benefit the region offers is that Tinker Air Force Base is only a twenty-five-minute commute from Shawnee. It expanded greatly during WW2 due to its strategic location, the access to land and the workforce that was available in this area.

“Tinker has continued to grow ever since that point in time. It is currently the largest air logistics center for the Air Force anywhere in the world. That has been beneficial. We don’t make airplanes here; we repair them. That terminology is called MRO – maintenance, repair, overhaul,” says Tim. Some of the aircraft that the U.S. Air Force flies are over fifty years old. This is due to the great work being done at Tinker to keep planes airworthy.

There are five aviation skills training centers in the state of Oklahoma, and one of them is in Shawnee. Recruitment, development and training occur here for employees of the Air Force base to help keep those planes in top shape. This is not just important to the military but also to companies such as Boeing and Rolls Royce that supply parts, services and repairs to the military.

As for business retention and expansion, seventy to seventy-five percent of all new jobs in the community will come from an existing company like a hospital, schools, manufacturers or even retailers. Many communities overlook what made them strong and prosperous, but Shawnee is well aware of how it came to be and works closely with its existing businesses. Paying attention to what is already here continues to drive the success in this area.

“We are eager to support our existing and our new companies by helping them with their workforce or infrastructure needs. If there is a resource or an asset that we are aware of, and that we can help bring to the table, then those resources will help in the business decision process when it comes to making additional capital investments here. “It’s imperative that you take care of those who are already here and of course those you wish to recruit,” says Tim.

Helping existing businesses that have employed people, paid property taxes and used local utilities to thrive and survive is a core component of the Shawnee economic development process. “In Oklahoma there is a saying that, ‘We need to dance with the one that brought you.’ There are a lot of businesses in this area that have created the prosperity we see today, and we need to stay focused on their needs, at the same time recruit new companies.”

This philosophy extends to the recent expenditures made at St. Anthony Shawnee Hospital. This national healthcare provider spent $55 million to expand the hospital after thoroughly examining the potential for growth. Also a great deal of analysis was performed to determine expansion needs not just at the hospital, but also for educational institutions and retailers.

Oklahoma Baptist University has been a part of the economic development process for a long time. Over 100 years ago the City of Shawnee assembled funding and land, then offered it to the Oklahoma Baptist General Convention for a coeducational facility, and the university has now just celebrated its 104th year in existence.

“Recently, an alumnus from back in the 1940s gave a significant grant to get the football team to be reinstated and others have been instrumental in funding the university’s state-of-the-world [simulation] robotic nursing training center. It is unbelievable when you see what these robots will do. The university is a strong part of our economy and community. Our desire is to help make it better and stronger in any way possible,” says Tim.

“The same holds true with St. Gregory’s University, our other liberal arts institution. We want them all to be successful and are blessed to have so much educational diversity in our area.”

To improve the physical condition of many of the schools in Shawnee’s largest public school district, recently a $32 million dollar bond issue was approved by the citizens. Aside from physical wear, upgrades were made to the technological aspects of these schools. Work is ongoing, and there are also plans to build a new elementary school due to growth in the community. Each building has different needs, and the people involved within the school district overwhelmingly supported that bond issue.

Four years ago development began on new retail projects that will total over $62 million in new investments. “It was identified eight to nine years ago that Shawnee was leaking around $100 million worth of retail sales potential. This was simply because we didn’t have the options or choices that consumers wanted,” says Tim.

A group of business leaders took it upon themselves to go out with a strong focus on retail recruitment. A significant number of new national retailers answered the call. Two new retail developments sprung up. One is the Shawnee Marketplace and the other is Domino Plaza. At the same time, the Shawnee Mall was very aggressive in filling some vacant space with other new national retailers.

“All of that momentum creates a pull factor, where other retailers want to be involved. They are not coming because we have a good sales pitch. They are here because the analytics prove themselves out. The numbers are here; their competitors are here. They can see the potential and the return on their investment,” says Tim.

In addition to the retail growth, The Shawnee Economic Development Foundation has had other recent successes. Recently it attracted a company called Universal Forest Products. It is a new manufacturer to the area but already has eighty locations in the U.S. with 6,500 employees.

Also, funds have been invested by the Shawnee Economic Development Foundation to construct a shell building in order to attract advanced manufacturing.

The message is clear: The Shawnee Economic Development Foundation is in place to support new and existing businesses by making the right investments. “Shawnee is where business just makes sense,” says Tim.

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