Thursday, April 19, 2012

Don't Call it a Comeback

By Kathy Young, Director of Operations.

Earlier this week, two of our staff (Ellen Cutter and Christa Spaht) were in Joplin, Missouri for a meeting with the Steering Committee of the seven-county Joplin Regional Prosperity Initiative. Even compared to other regional strategic processes that Market Street has facilitated over the years, the Joplin regional effort is an impressive undertaking. The region's seven communities span three states, which changes the dynamics dramatically from a one-state regional process. And then there is the fact that the population core of the region (Joplin and Duquesne) were dramatically and tragically impacted by a massive tornado just 11 months ago.

However, despite the challenges that may lie ahead, and in part, because of the challenges that have been overcome in less than a year, the leaders in this region are forging ahead with the work at hand. Since our first work in Joplin last June, our team has consistently been impressed by the region's optimism and the work ethic of business and political leaders as well as citizens called into leadership roles unexpectedly.

During the Initiative's meeting on Tuesday, Steering Committee members discussed the findings and implications of our team's assessment of their competitiveness. While there are opportunities for improvement, there were also some points that supported  some observations recently shared in a Wall Street Journal online article, which highlighted the speed of the Joplin recovery and reflected on the possible factors that have fostered recovery. I should note here that I wasn't wild about the ease with which the authors drew contrasting opinions about Tuscaloosa, Alabama's progress, but concede the validity of several arguments made in the article.

A couple of highlights from the research included the fact that, despite the effects of the May 22 tornado, Joplin school enrollment did not decrease from 2010 to 2011, but increased by 1.69%. Two weeks ago, a $62 million Joplin Schools bond referendum–the largest bond issue in the City of Joplin’s history–passed. In addition, the region's strong sense of charitable giving, which has been observed often in the national press, pushed the region ahead of two of its three comparison communities in terms of per capita giving.

For all of the big picture statistics, there are dozens of individual stories as well. One of Joplin's small business owners who lost her building during the tornado jumped right back in again to rebuild, like many others. We met this woman during an interview session last July and upon our sharing of her story, a cupcake and lemonade stand fundraiser was held here in Atlanta, sponsored by a lovely child I know very well (my oldest daughter). While the funds raised were not enough to make a huge financial dent in the woman's needs, the gratitude and excitement she showed in return certainly made an impact on us. Ellen Cutter snapped this photo of the newly rebuilt Cupcakes by Liz business  -  it serves as an inspiring reminder of the Joplin regional community's dedication to proving that despite the physical and human losses, the spirit of the community never disappeared.