Why would more than 40 regional business leaders spend two days of their busy lives on a bus learning about how other cities and chambers operate?
“Visiting other communities to learn about their strengths is vitally important to our own community’s investment in growth,” said Gail Urban, a member of the inter-region visit planning committee and the owner of AMICUS Wealth Partners. “Sometimes we learn that our community is very progressive in a particular area, but other times, we see we’ve been sitting on the bench far too long and the experience is a motivator to make things happen.”
Organized by the staff of the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce, the Sept. 26-27, 2022, trip to Wichita and Oklahoma City — the first trip of its kind since the pandemic — included leaders from Manhattan, Wamego and Pottawatomie County. MACC’s Inter-Region Visit program began in 2015 with a trip to Columbia, Missouri. Since then, the Chamber has also organized a similar trip to Northwest Arkansas as well as one to Ames (Iowa) and Lincoln (Nebraska), and each journey has led the business community to new ideas for overcoming local challenges.
Committee Co-Chair Kate Ryan, business development manager for McCownGordon, said such trips are important because they provide a shared experience that can inspire volunteers to act.
“We learn best practices, build and enhance our relationships through shared experiences, and return home eager to support the growth and development of our region,” Ryan said.
Click on the links below for a recap of the group’s intensive two-day experience, planned around identified opportunities for growth in the region.
Stop One: Kansas Leadership Center (Wichita)
The group first met with Damon Young, the Kansas Leadership Center’s chief business officer and the current chair of the board for the Wichita Chamber. He teed off the trip with an overview of KLC and a discussion about the role of community leaders to get more people “in the game.” He introduced diversity, equity and inclusion efforts the Wichita Chamber has been making to include more people in community leadership. He encouraged the group to “slow down and ask questions” and “double check that all boats are rising” as part of their efforts to get more people exercising leadership in their communities.
At that same stop, Wichita Chamber President and CEO John Rolfe and key members of his staff spoke on actions that have been made to intentionally include more groups of people in the Chamber, including people of color, LGBTQ+, veterans, women and young professionals. Wichita is more than three years into this initiative that has included hiring Ricki Ellison as the Chamber’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Summer Ott Dierks, the 2022 MACC chair of the board and owner of Dierks Law Firm, said the session with the Wichita Chamber showed the Manhattan participants how intentional it needs to be with DEI efforts.
“Wichita has been focused on the initiative for three years and has deemed it so necessary that they have hired a full-time staff member to work on the matter,” Ott Dierks said. “The most impactful thing we learned, from my perspective, is that if we don’t pay attention and evolve, our community will not grow. Striving for growth for our community is in our best interests, to keep Manhattan and its surrounding areas alive and thriving.”
Stop Two: Gene Rainbolt Graduate School of Business (Oklahoma City)
After touring the Rainbolt School, located in the heart of Oklahoma City at the University Research Park of the OU Health Sciences Center, the group heard two panels’ perspectives on university partnerships and economic development in Oklahoma. Panelists included:
- Joyce Burch, director of corporate partnerships and regional economic development; Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnerships, University of Oklahoma. Burch spoke at length about her work involving partnerships among the state’s research universities, private industry and academic units.
- Jeff Seymour, vice president of economic development for the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. Seymour shared the story of Oklahoma City’s efforts since the loss of a major aerospace project in the 1990s to revamp the city through a series of sales tax initiatives. Collaborations with OU, Oklahoma State University and Tinker Air Force Base have been essential in making Oklahoma City a place where major sectors intersect and innovation happens. In the process, the results have given the community a better story to tell and have created an environment where students are more likely to stay after graduation.
- Brent Kisling, executive director, Oklahoma Department of Commerce. Kisling overviewed his career in various levels of economic development before taking over leadership at the state level. He shared his experiences working with other regional metros — including Dallas and Kansas City — to collectively compete with the coasts and fight to keep locally grown talent close to home.
- Rex Smitherman, president, i2E. Smitherman told the story of how i2E identifies viable companies at the idea stage and nurtures them through the processes of building, launching and growing their idea into a successful enterprise. I2E measures its success not by job creation, but wealth creation, and manages $100 million in state-funded seed money to assist start-ups. They’ve helped more than 750 companies in their 24-year history.
Stop Three: Moore Norman Technology Center (Norman)
One major difference between Oklahoma and Kansas is that career-tech centers in the state have taxing authority to support campus facilities and operations through local property taxes, while technical colleges in Kansas do not. This 1,800-student center brings together high school and college students from both Norman and Moore for training in skilled trades, health care, information technology and STEM programs. In addition to touring the technology center’s extensively updated campus, the Greater Manhattan group learned about MNTC’s academic programs and custom-designed, industry-specific training from Brian Ruttman, superintendent and CEO.
Norman Schools Superintendent Dr. Nick Migliorino introduced the group to the ambitious Oklahoma Aviation Academy, an aviation-specific academy operated by Norman Public Schools. The program was the result of a request by private industry and has become a public-private collaboration. In its first year, the program has attracted more than 100 students (30% of whom are females). The program uses the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association curriculum and prepares young people for entry to various aviation careers. Classes are held in University of Oklahoma facilities and they feature aviation-themed core classes like English and math. Academy leaders dream of growing to more than 600 students and having their own facility, but for now leaders are excited about their progress in training young people for the aerospace industry, as well as in their potential to keep these students in the region after graduation.
Mark Knackendoffel, inter-region visit committee member and president and CEO of The Trust Company, was impressed with the Oklahoma Aviation Academy.
“It’s essentially a charter school curriculum that provides flexibility and innovation based on the needs of the students, but also generates extensive commitment from the students as they earn internships and on-the-job training, which matched up with their curriculum of core classes,” Knackendoffel said.
Also, an economic development roundtable on this stop featured:
- Richard McKown, Green Earth Land Design home builder. McKown shared his extensive portfolio of work, including his nontraditional focus on storytelling in project development. Past projects include family neighborhoods, downtown redevelopment projects with multifamily residential housing, and mixed-used properties.
- Dan Schemm, Norman Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director. Schemm discussed his experiences switching from a traditional heads-in-beds model of tourism development to a greater focus on placemaking and event organizing. He spoke extensively about the tourism impact of youth sports and how the community is using the University of Oklahoma’s move to the Southeastern Conference as an impetus for major investment in upgrades.
- Deidre Ebrey, Moore Economic Development director of public affairs/economic development, City of Moore. When a city is only 22 square miles big, landlocked on all four sides, and not zoned for industrial development, it takes creativity to do economic development. Ebrey has become one of the most successful retail development specialists in the state while working on behalf of Moore, a city of 65,000 greatly reliant on sales tax. The city has developed a sales tax rebate program to incentivize companies to locate in Moore.
Stop Four: Wichita State University Innovation Campus (Wichita)
On the return trip north, participants heard from Andy Schlapp, WSU’s executive director of government relations and strategy, and director of business development for the National Institute of Aviation Research. Participants toured the thriving Innovation Campus being built adjacent to WSU. The Campus’s mission is to be an essential educational, cultural and economic driver for Kansas and the greater public good.
Campus properties have been privately developed and are occupied by leading companies, primarily in the technology, aviation and engineering sectors. All companies in the innovation campus are required to employ student workers. Also within WSU’s Innovation Campus is GoCreate, a Koch Industries and Fred and Mary Koch Foundation-funded makerspace open to all ages and experience levels.
Participants said such trips are key to inspiring leaders to put in the work to move initiatives forward for Greater Manhattan.
“Once a bigger group from the Manhattan area visits other towns, they will see that we already have many initiatives and projects moving in the right direction. But we need better buy-in from all of our local delegation, moving in a common direction and pulling for the greater good of Manhattan and the surrounding community,” Jarrod Willich, president of Hi-Tech Interiors, said. “All of the sites we visited commented on partnerships and cooperation.”
Doug Barrett, owner of 400 North Creative and vice president of Black Entrepreneurs of the Flint Hills, said such trips force people out of their comfort zones — and that’s a good thing.
“We serve the people of our community and we owe it to small business owners to challenge our thinking. We have to do things we’ve never done, with people we’ve never done them with, and build with people we’ve never worked with in order to have expansion and growth. Strategic investments are important so that we may all prosper. We are hopeful to incentivize and have sustainability as we trek into unchartered territories,” Barrett said. “The bottom line is, our people in Manhattan make up this awesome community and we want everyone to have equality and prosper. That is why it is important to learn what others are doing to bring back to our community.”
To be notified about attending or sponsoring future Inter-Region Visits, or if your community would be interested in planning a trip to visit Manhattan, contact Sharla Meisenheimer.