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We're waiting on next big thing

We're waiting on next big thing

August 6th, 2017 by Les Minor in Opinion Columns

"Sittin' here waitin' for the next explosion." —Jimmy Buffett

Doesn't it seem like Texarkana is just treading water? Can't you almost hear the methodical tick tock, tick tock of the clock as our community strives to maintain buoyancy, or rise above it?

Treading water in most contexts is a passive pursuit, more about survival than ambition. Energy is expended, but there is little directed momentum.

We have progress here and there, improvements in this sector or that, battlefield victories, but no larger conquest to claim or crow about.

We push some resources at this, throw other money at that, collect a lot of trinkets along the way and forgo the big prize.

We have built an impressive retail sector in town, but like a lot of places, we are possibly over-built. We have landed a lot of hotels, same situation. Restaurants? How do they all survive? Amazingly, they do.

What we haven't really done is to create a diverse economic base and attract companies that create mid- to high-end jobs. The technology sector is underrepresented.

Maybe changing the local and regional profile is easier said than done. There are plenty of officials sitting at desks in Texarkana and the surrounding communities and counties, hunched over desks, chewing on their pencils, sorting through stacks of data, trying to solve the puzzle, trying to make something happen.

There is no shortage of public bodies that want to make a splash, no shortage of commitments to put wheels in motion at any number of places.

But there does seem to be a lack of real collaboration, and our investment in recruiting companies to come here seems to be underwhelming compared to other places that have invested in themselves.

Sometimes our local governments try to work together, but often this is more symbolic than substantial. Think about efforts to unite and build a convention center here. In the end, we had two.

There are plenty of examples of similar dysfunctionality around here, within the city and outside it. Collaborative efforts have largely failed—except when it comes to keeping Red River Army Depot's viability intact. Then we come together.

So it can be done.

But how? How do we move beyond treading water and push back against the tide?

We have an abundance of assets in this region, but little enthusiasm to combine them.

What should be one of our greatest strengths is usually is wasted. We are more inclined—or required—to act independently than to act in accord.

So we end up with competing or divergent interests instead of unified ones.

True, none of the players here sits on a big pile of gold. But all the little piles combined and some ongoing commitment might turn the tide.

If the economic profile of this region is ever going to change, if the average wage here is ever going to rise, there must be a willingness from our public bodies to combine resources, take calculated risks and invest in our futures.

We have highways. We have abundant water. We have lots of land ready to build on. Good schools. Good communities. Good health care. Good location. Low cost of living. This is the short list.

We have areas we can improve on, for sure. But we have advantages, we have selling points.

This is not to say it will be easy. If it were, everyone could do it.

What we do know with almost certainty is that the federal government is not going to throw any money at us. If something is going to happen, we are going to have to do it ourselves.

Greg Kozera, director of marketing for Shale Crescent USA (shalecrescentusa.com) and a past president of the Virginia Oil & Gas Association (an all-volunteer organization), says post-recession communities have to be proactive.

"The federal government can do some things to help, but it's the private sector and local government officials who really need to step up," he said.

He says there is reason for optimism in the Mid-Ohio Valley that stretches across Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, where Shale Crescent, a nonprofit, nonpolitical group of business and community leaders, is doing its work.

"Much of the work of restoring the economy in these areas has to begin with the people who live there," he said.

This region is blessed with the largest natural-gas field in the world, said the engineer and environmentalist with more than 35 years of experience in the natural gas and oil industry. He also is the author of the books "Just the Fracks Ma'am" and "Learned Leadership." Beyond natural gas, the region also has easy transportation, an eager workforce and good market proximity. He believes the area is ready for a "petrochemical industrial boom."

That's not here, of course. But from his experience, he says there are things communities and regions can do to improve their fortunes.

First, take the initiative. Business and community leaders shouldn't wait for government or outside industry to make something happen. They need to take action.

"That's what the people who formed Shale Crescent USA did," Kozera says. "They knew if something was going to happen, they would need to be the catalyst for making it happen themselves."

Second, create awareness. Once you know what you want to achieve, you must get the word out to people and industries that can help you make it happen.

"For example," he said, "Shale Crescent USA is making sure that the petrochemical, glass and other industries know about the advantages the Mid-Ohio Valley provides as a place to grow or relocate. Government can do a lot to help bring in business, but typically doesn't do a very good job of staying focused on marketing and sales."

Third, remember that prosperity is contagious. Sometimes when multiple cities or states are involved, they become competitive and forget that exactly where industry locates doesn't matter because the whole region will benefit from economic development. As people gain good paychecks, more businesses will spring up to serve them, he says. The tax base also increases, which means schools, roads, parks and other government services can also improve.

"Something like this isn't a simple task," he says. "It takes a team effort. If you can get people in a region working together, you'll have a much greater chance of accomplishing your goals."

Does his advice sound like in might have some applicability here?

The choices seem simple. We can be proactive, or we can wait and see what happens next.

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