In 2017, Business in Focus spoke with Economic Development Director Tim Burg about Shawnee, the eastern gateway to Oklahoma City. A lot has happened since then, and amongst other things, the development organization name has changed from the Shawnee Economic Development Foundation to the Shawnee Forward Business Alliance. I had the privilege of speaking with one of the new people brought on board: President and Chief Executive Officer Tracy Qualls.
Since the beginning of the City of Shawnee, in Pottawatomie County, there was a chamber of commerce. This was later followed by an economic development foundation, but the two worked separately. Three years ago, a group started to look at the relevance of the economic development foundation, and into plans looking forward to the year 2025 to predict the needs of the business community.
“We had to consider the needs from an economic development point of view, but also the chamber of commerce. Fresh ideas were needed to ensure we were providing services that our community needs. This created opportunities for new initiatives,” says Tracy.
This was not an easy process, and there were a few hurdles. There were many diehard chamber representatives and staunch economic development people votes and differing opinions on each item up for discussion. Breaking down the silos to get both parties to realize that the two entities could work well together was the aim.
Following the fresh new name, work began in earnest to bring the community together, making opportunities and strengthening the existing business community. Pledges were solicited from members and the community at large to help start it off and get it off the ground.
“I was hired a year ago as the new President and CEO after a national search and multiple candidate interviews. The organization known as Shawnee Forward went into business and became the organization officially on July 1, 2018,” says Tracy.
Part of the need for the new structure was in response to the area’s booming manufacturing climate. Tim Burg is the resident expert on this, and his leadership is well respected within the alliance. He now works for Tracy as the economic development director for the organization and concentrates on Shawnee’s opportunity zones and tax credits.
Shawnee is lucky to have a host of opportunity zones that run through its industrial parks and into neighboring communities, and potential and existing clients are taking advantage of the zones. A lot of interest has been generated, and the alliance is taking many calls and answering questions.
“We are meeting with people considering Shawnee as an area to relocate due to the opportunities presented. Tim has firsthand experience in helping design what Shawnee received in that opportunity zone and knew the areas that would benefit most. We are fortunate to have the area that we do,” says Tracy.
Oklahoma has some of the best technology centers in the U.S., and one of them is the Gordon Cooper Technology Center in Shawnee. It continues to advance technology by helping local organizations. Recently, a manufacturer came into town specifically due to the existence of the center. It wanted to switch to a robotics system in its manufacturing line. Gordon Cooper will specialize and help a person from that manufacturing organization to learn how to operate the system according to the manufacturer’s standard.
“It is a great resource for us to be able to offer to people, where they can pick up and get training right away. They don’t have the downtime other places have due to a lack of resources. In that pipeline, the technology center serves a multitude of different high schools through organizations like SkillsUSA and Business Professionals of America, which can be a means for new employees to find work,” says Tracy.
Growth has led to a reassessment of infrastructure needs. A six-lane widening project is underway on the I-40 corridor in Shawnee. I-40 crosses the U.S., and many visitors drive the route each year for recreational travel or work.
The state of Oklahoma has seen the growth potential and the patterns coming into the area and has taken steps to prepare. It is currently widening the road from the Oklahoma City area, with a six-lane highway to Highway 177 in Shawnee, which is the first corridor in the area.
There is also a new turnpike that will be situated about five miles outside of the city limits that will enable people to go around the downtown Oklahoma City area. This will inevitably bring additional traffic and growth to the Shawnee community based on its easy access.
Shawnee is in an optimal location. Fort Smith, Arkansas is the next retail development that has interstate access. There are a few restaurants and other areas to pull off on, but as far as major retail corridors, it is Fort Smith and Shawnee.
“Going the opposite way, we are the last stop before Fort Smith, Arkansas, for any type of retail. This is of great benefit to us, and we can see it through our trade areas as far as how people are shopping here and where they are coming from,” says Tracy.
A $32 million bond was issued, and part of that will be dedicated to building a new elementary school. Construction will begin construction shortly on the northern edge of the community and will provide some great opportunities for, amongst other things, more housing and retail around the area of the school.
As Shawnee starts preparing for the 2020 census, Tim Burg has taken it upon himself to help in that regard and gather information to aid in building new housing subdivisions. He drove around the community to ensure that the alliance and the people doing the census were aware of every new development in Shawnee so everyone can be counted properly.
“When we went around the area just a few months ago, there were an additional twenty-eight new neighborhoods that were either completed or have been put in since the last census went out. That speaks volumes on how people want to be in this area,” says Tracy.
There is a constant wave of new planning proposals coming in for additional housing, and housing stock that is being built is not sitting for long before being occupied. Good options are provided that fit with what people are seeking.
The widening of the Interstate, the new elementary school coming in, and another high school that went into operation last August at North Rock Creek are all catalysts for continued growth. An increase in population and economic activity is expected.
“Any projections we are seeing from the state department of commerce indicate an upturn in activity. We are ready for this, but you must be. If you don’t plan for this in advance, it will end up planning you,” says Tracy.
The Shawnee Forward Business Alliance wants to be at the forefront, controlling that development and ensuring it can provide the resources people want. The alliance must provide elements that boost the quality of life and make an area a home, like walking trails and restaurants.
“We also need to take on the work that is not much fun or glamorous – the things that people take for granted like roads and bridges, police officers, and fire halls. They all have to be in place and prepared for what’s coming,” says Tracy.