A Place Where Business Thrives

Shawnee Forward Inc.
Written by Claire Suttles

Located just thirty minutes from the greater Oklahoma City metro area and Tinker Air Force Base, Shawnee enjoys an ideal balance between urban advantages and rural living. A thriving downtown, university, regional airport, multiple tribal facilities, and a number of large industrial employers provide plenty of opportunities within the city limits.

Business in Focus sat down again with Shawnee Forward Inc. to catch up on the latest news and developments.

The community pulled together during the COVID-19 pandemic to overcome the challenges, and business leaders worked closely with government officials. “The business community has had a great voice [along with] the city commission,” says Shawnee Forward Inc. President and Chief Executive Officer Rachael Melot. “The city commission has tried to make decisions considering the safety of our people as well as the support of our business community and the partnership with our Tribal Governments.”

She explains that, “Shawnee leadership has worked to build and create opportunities to collaborate with our tribal leadership. Our tribal healthcare providers and SSM St. Anthony Hospital – Shawnee have been great distributors of the vaccine. They’ve helped our county by vaccinating as many people as possible.” Area healthcare heroes and citizens have all done their part.

Shawnee Forward Inc. partnered with the City of Shawnee, the City of Tecumseh, and Pottawatomie County to create a small business relief grant program to help businesses thrive during the pandemic. “Shawnee was one of the communities in the State of Oklahoma that proactively worked to help our businesses,” she says.

To apply for the grant, businesses needed to demonstrate a specific plan for how they would use the funding to adapt to the pandemic restrictions. For example, restaurants applied for money to buy heaters so patrons could dine outside. Other restaurants needed funding to create a drive-through service. Some businesses needed assistance expanding space to accommodate social distancing rules.

“They wrote their business case for how they would use the money to expand and grow their business, and a task force of people evaluated those,” Melot says. “We were actually able to get a second round of funding, so that every business that applied and was eligible, was granted some amount of funding from us.”

Around thirty-five businesses received grants of up to $5,000 each. “I think it’s just another great example of the region working together to utilize Cares Act funding for our business community,” she says. “In the follow-up interviews of the recipients, we have been told, in multiple cases, that the ROI to their business far exceeded their expectations. Our local businesses are so grateful, and it could only have been done with the collaborative efforts of Tecumseh, Shawnee and Pottawatomie County municipalities.

Shawnee enjoys a thriving downtown that continues to prosper, despite the issues COVID has imposed. “We are seeing significant investment in our downtown, and women-owned businesses have formed a particularly strong presence in Shawnee’s downtown,” Melot says. “I believe when women invest in businesses downtown, the community perception supports the main street business owners’ belief that the area is safe and welcoming. When women feel safe, the community at large feels safer.”

There has been substantial recent investment in new housing downtown, making the area more than just a shopping district. “We have multiple housing opportunities in our downtown area,” she says, and locals are eager to move in. “The last two developments that opened did so at full capacity.” The newest development, a higher-end apartment complex, opened almost completely pre-leased.

In addition to retail and housing, Shawnee’s bustling downtown offers a variety of entertainment opportunities that bring the community together. The Safe Events for Families organization [SEFF] puts on festivals and events throughout the year, from blues concerts to one of the state’s longest running Christmas parades. In addition, the City of Shawnee has invested in downtown walkability, so citizens can better enjoy all it has to offer.

The community is eager to retain its residents and provide opportunities for young, ambitious minds. “Shawnee public schools piloted the ICAP [Individual Career Academic Plan] program before it was state-mandated, and they’ve done an excellent job putting interns in our businesses even during COVID,” states Melot.

“Shawnee Forward had the opportunity to have one of those ICAP interns,” she says, referring to a successful example of the high school internships the program promotes. “She has been fantastic. One of the businesses offered her a job for the summer while she was doing our work. Not only did we get a chance to have a great intern for a semester, but then it gave her an opportunity for improving her employment and it gave one of our businesses a hardworking, smart employee.”

Shawnee’s business community benefits from Oklahoma Baptist University’s internship program too. The micro-internship program has “an intentional focus on attracting and retaining the great talent that graduates from Oklahoma Baptist University. So many of our member businesses have had internships [with] students from Oklahoma Baptist University in multiple degree programs,” Melot notes. The result has been rewarding. “Locals are excited to see highly-educated, well-rounded college graduates choosing Shawnee for employment after graduation.”

The University is expanding its educational options, creating more opportunities for students and local businesses alike. “Oklahoma Baptist University expects to enroll their first students this fall in their new engineering program,” she says. “Overall, Oklahoma is always in need of more engineers so Oklahoma Baptist University is responding to that.”

As with the high school internship program, Shawnee Forward Inc. has witnessed firsthand the benefits of the college internship program. “We had an OBU student intern in our economic development department this year—a political science major—and she spent hours helping us establish our policy structure and our policy support documents for the year,” Melot says. “And in that process, she was able to sit around the table with bankers and legislators and key business decision-makers who may one day be her employer. The whole state of Oklahoma is focused on developing the workforce, and Shawnee is proactively focused on connecting the business community to graduates of every program, from career tech to high school to university.”

With a firm track record of growth and success, Shawnee has a lot to look forward to. An infrastructure expansion is underway to create a six-lane highway running alongside the city. The local airport and local rail lines are growing and expanding, creating additional opportunities and demonstrating the health of the local economy.

“We look forward to continued growth. We look forward to continuing to have a voice at the state level through our representation both at the state and the federal level,” says Melot. From strong pro-business leadership to exciting new developments, Shawnee is poised to continue its upward trajectory. “Overall the community is positioned to attract and keep businesses and talent.”

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