A key word during the Business Development Forum this week in Decatur was momentum. The economic development momentum certainly seems to have shifted in Decatur's favor and city leaders say now is the time to start capitalizing on the opportunities that exist within the community to make their aspirations become reality. At the same time, they will admit more progress needs to be made, especially in the coming year.
The meeting provided attendees with an overview of the types of resources that are available to assist businesses in Decatur. Many of the resources are already functioning but sometimes it can be difficult to know which group does what. That's part of the thinking behind launching the Business Development Resource Center. It will be located next to the offices for the Greater Decatur Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation of Decatur and Macon County inside the One Main Place building. It will pool the resources of those two organizations along with Millikin University, Richland Community College and the City of Decatur. The hope is to have it open by this summer.
Among the programs designed to help businesses is Economic Gardening, which is targeted at second-level businesses, or ones that are just beyond the start-up phase but have yet to reach their full potential. Second stage companies have been the only ones with a net expansion in terms of job creation in Decatur, said Sharon Alpi, a business professor at Millikin.
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“Growing from within is more important than ever,” Alpi said. “Economic gardening is one piece of the puzzle.”
Other pieces include workforce development, in which Richland plays a leading role. Workforce Investment Solutions is among its partners. That agency's programs include providing employment training opportunities. While job openings exist throughout the community, Executive Director Robyn McCoy said matching workers with the right skill sets remains a challenge. Education levels, criminal backgrounds and drug tests remain huge barriers to landing employment, she said. Workforce Investment Solutions can provide businesses and workers with a number of services to meet their training needs and overcome some of those barriers, McCoy said.
Infrastructure upgrades might not seem the most exciting, but $272 million worth of projects are underway in Decatur, Assistant City Manager Billy Tyus said. He said the work being done is as critical as any new development as infrastructure is not usually something given a lot of thought until it fails. Sewers, road projects and lake dredging are all among the projects that are happening, Tyus said. City leaders hope the work will provide businesses with the foundation for what they need in order to decide to locate or remain in the area. Economic development is centered around providing the right information to businesses at the right time, said Patrick Hoban, Decatur's Economic Development Officer. Hoban said his office received 400 inquiries last year, many of which led to projects getting started, which in turn leads to job creation.