Scraps of paper cover the top of Mike Brooks’ U-shaped desk. Regulation books and bright folders of notes and presentations peek out from underneath the mass. Two books rest on the metal bookcase: Jump Start your Business Brain and Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.
Sitting in the windowsill is a foam core board that reads “IBM” and “Thanks for your support,” encircled by a number of signatures and well wishes.
On one of the two computer screens is a color-blocked schedule. Today looks busy:
8:30 a.m.: Meet with Cultural Affairs Bureau
10 a.m.: Interview
11 a.m.: Call consultant interested in bringing business to Columbia
Noon: Meet with Centennial Investors
1:30 p.m.: Attend training session
1:45 p.m.: Meet about Missouri Partnership
2:30 p.m.: Meet with minority business leaders
4 p.m.: Candidate Forum
It’s all subject to change. If something like last week happens — a consultant wants to visit Columbia at the last minute in consideration of relocating a business here — the colored blocks are shifted and rearranged, often into Brooks’ evenings. Each month, REDI works on an average of 12 to 15 projects, according to its 2012 annual report.
But he wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. Before becoming the president of Regional Economic Development Inc. (REDI) in 2009, Brooks served as president of the Indiana Health Industry Forum, a statewide advocacy organization for health care from mid-2005 to 2009. “There was a lot about that job that I enjoyed,” he says, “but at one point, I stepped back and said to myself, ‘I’m not sure I want to do this until I retire.’” As he and his wife discussed this, she asked him what he’s enjoyed most about his career. Brooks realized it was while he was doing economic development in a college town, as the economic development director in Lafayette, Ind., from 1990 to 2004. So he began looking until he found a job that fit: Columbia.
The nonprofit, membership-based organization’s bottom line is to break down barriers for businesses in Columbia, wanting to come to Columbia or just getting started in Columbia. There are five levels of membership, ranging in cost from $500 for a professional membership to $10,000 for REDI’s council of 10. In total, according to its 2012 annual report, membership revenue increased by $60,000 in 2012 alone, when the group added 40 new members. At the end of 2012, REDI had more than 100 member investors.
Since REDI was first created in 1988, its budget has approximately doubled, totaling $1.036 million in 2012. From this budget, about 21 percent is spent on operations, 7 percent on its occupancy and 72 percent on its programs.
“We try to figure out what the business climate issues are that affect our ability to do [those three things],” Brooks says. “That’s the framework we have to work with. It isn’t about what Mike wants. It’s about what the board thinks is best for the city.”
Each year, a committee of past presidents, including Bob Black and B. Jeffrey MacLellan, and chairs of REDI meet to analyze the membership roster. They determine who’s contributed and expressed interest in the board and then select members to serve. From that board, REDI receives its directives.
One of the barriers the board recognizes is a lack of short-term rental housing for people relocating to Columbia for a job who might not want to sign a yearlong lease. Other times, REDI has recognized the need for job training or a space for new companies to grow, and REDI finds ways to deliver. For example, REDI is currently partnering with Moberly Area Community College for a two-year training program for mechanical and industrial technology and has assisted in the development of the Downtown Incubator, which is also located below the parking structure at the corner of Fifth and Walnut.
For a company such as IBM that may not be able to fill its 600 jobs with the workforce in Columbia, REDI had to assist in attracting talent to the community. “When they look at Columbia, they have to decide that it’s somewhere they want to live; that’s why quality of life is important,” he says.
“Every individual company will be treated separately; you can’t offer everyone the same package because they have different needs,” Brooks says. When Beyond Meat, a manufacturing company that makes a soy-based chicken substitute, considering locating in Columbia, REDI provided a workspace for its representative while the decision was made. When Beyond Meat did decide on Columbia in August 2012, the representative continued using that space to do the bulk of the hiring.
“We bent over backwards to use our resources here to create those jobs, and it’s already paying dividends,” Brooks says. REDI is also a member of Missouri CORE, Connecting Our Regional Economy, a nonprofit economic development agency representing Audrain, Boone, Callaway and Cole counties. So REDI reached out to Mexico, Fulton and Jefferson City to make sure that, even if Beyond Meat couldn’t fulfill its requirements in Columbia, the economic impact would still benefit our region. Within that area, Beyond Meat only found two facilities that met its needs for space, in Columbia and in Jefferson City.
“If a company comes to me and says they are specifically interested in Columbia, I won’t share that information [with surrounding towns],” he says, “but if they can’t find a place in Columbia, then the second best thing is to find a place in our region.”
Even after Beyond Meat and IBM were settled, REDI’s job wasn’t done. “They became a part of the fabric of our community, so our focus transfers from attraction to how we can continue to support their business,” he says. “We can’t just walk away and say we did our part.”
For REDI, success is difficult to define because it doesn’t have the same metrics as a census or something like it. “A lot of what we measure isn’t measurable in the context of absolute numbers but in successes,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s about how we can positively impact the lives of our citizens.”
Engineers, explorers and economics
Brooks didn’t always know that attracting new companies and creating new jobs would be his passion. He grew up in Greensburg, Ind., and originally went to college at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., for a degree in electrical engineering.
“I grew up on a dairy farm, so what I knew was milking cows, bailing hay and harvesting crops,” he says. “I didn’t have a career counselor at my high school, so when it came time to go to college, all I knew was that I like science and knew a little about electricity.”
In the summertime he would help his father wire houses. He had those summers under his belt and was an electrician in the Air Force Reserves, but despite his interest in math and science, the skills from his small rural high school weren’t where they needed to be.
To continue in the engineering program, “I knew I’d have to take all the remedial classes to get up to par,” he says. His parents didn’t have the money to send him to college, so Brooks first worked as a grocery stocker and later as a lineman in a factory that made prefabricated homes. He knew he didn’t want to have to pay for all those classes, so he changed his major.
“I wanted to be a social sciences teacher and coach basketball ever since I was a kid,” he says. When he graduated from Purdue in the ‘70s, he couldn’t find a teaching job, so he began selling life insurance.
“That was my only truly negative work experience,” he says. “The manager of the company just had some ethical issues, and I didn’t feel comfortable working in that environment.” His father had instilled in him a strong sense of ethics from the time he was a boy.
“There was no way you were going to do something that wasn’t right,” Brooks recalls.
He then went to work for the Boy Scouts of America as an exploring executive, helping kids like him learn about career options.
“It was attractive to me because I was an example of what they were hoping for,” he says. “If I had known more about being an electrical engineer, I probably wouldn’t have gone into that.” But after four years of helping young people discover their career options, he began to doubt his own career choice. He didn’t know if that was going to be the right choice for him forever, so a trip back to visit his family in Indiana led to an interview with Penn Dixie Steel, where he worked as an industrial engineer determining workers’ pay classification based on their responsibilities, and he was very comfortable back on the factory floor.
“In my long career, I’ve worked with many manufacturers, so I have some appreciation that others might not have on how important manufacturing is in terms of economic activity in a community,” Brooks says. After working on the production line in the prefabricated homes factory, he worked his way up to a foreman. In that position, he was earning $9,000 per year, so when he graduated college and accepted the job in the Boy Scouts, he also took a huge pay cut down to $7,000.
Not all jobs are available to every level of education, so from his experience, Brooks wants to attract jobs here that can provide opportunities at every level.
“We don’t want to turn our backs on the high school educated,” he says. “This town isn’t just for people with college degrees. We need to have other jobs for other people.”
Many of the people Brooks is talking about currently work in retail, a portion of Columbia’s economy that continues to grow. But the difference in pay between a retail job and a manufacturing job is between $12,000 and $14,000 each year.
That was the basis behind one of Brooks’ biggest projects: creating an enhanced enterprise zone (EEZ) in Columbia. “We went into the program with the understanding that we weren’t an early adopter,” he says. REDI didn’t expect as much pushback, although it found that much of the opposition was based on the means of achieving the EEZ, through declaring blight, than the actual EEZ program.
Just last December, REDI chose to withdraw its application to become an EEZ. The decision to withdraw came after a particular meeting with the Parkade neighborhood. “What did it for me was when a gentleman spoke at the end of [the meeting] and said he appreciates and supports REDI in its effort to bring jobs to the community, but he just doesn’t want his home blighted,” Brooks says. “By that point, I just didn’t feel comfortable going forward. We probably could have pushed it through, but at that point we had to ask ourselves if we were doing what was best for the community.”
“I’ve spent my whole life trying to be an ethical person and do things in the proper way,” he says, “because we all have to look at ourselves in the mirror every morning, and we should like what we see.”
But despite the painful experience, Brooks says it was an opportunity to meet a lot of people. For many of the opponents to the EEZ, “Some of [the opponents] weren’t supporters of REDI to begin with, and if they didn’t support us before, they don’t support us now.”
“I won’t deny that there was a lot of pain to me personally, but at the end of the day, it was a positive experience,” Brooks says. “There was a lot of discussion and sentiment expressed that will be valuable going forward.”
Columbia on top
When he has time to spend around Columbia, Brooks is likely to be playing golf, working in his yard or walking his two dogs, which, he says, haven’t had nearly enough walks lately.
Beyond the papers and business books of a busy man’s office are pictures he’s taken with his Canon TI2. He does a fair amount of photography, particularly landscapes, and gets a kick out of working in digital art. Behind the color-coded schedule is a picture he’s framed of a snowy day while working as the vice president of economic development at Utah State University.
“Their administration building is called Old Main, and there’s this great big hill outside it,” he says. “I was walking to a meeting, and I saw all these students sledding. I just had to stop and take a picture.”
Even when the colored blocks of his hectic schedule shift into his personal time, Brooks will stop to enjoy the little things about our city. He’s finally where he wants to be. And he says, no matter what, he and REDI will continue to play their part in bringing new jobs to Columbia. After all, Brooks says: “It isn’t about what Mike wants. It’s about what we think is best for the city.”