This year's class of Leadership Lawton-Fort Sill got a crash course in economic development - particularly what it is and what it isn't - during its final session last week.
The group - made up of young business and community leaders who want to learn more about the community and develop relationships - has been meeting monthly since last fall. The sessions focus on specific areas, such as criminal justice or state government.
The session on economic development ranged from help for new startups to Fortune 500 companies, visiting with local development professionals and touring the economic development facilities and the crown jewel of the Lawton economy - the Goodyear tire plant.
Plant manager John Cunningham welcomed the group and gave an overview of the plant's economics - more than 2,800 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact. The class also had lunch with Goodyear managers before touring the plant, which stretches almost a mile in length.
The day included sessions with Mayor Fred Fitch; Leslie Blair of the state Department of Commerce; officials at Great Plains Technology Center; developer Ron Nance; and Samantha Lankford, director of Cameron University's Center for Emerging Technology and Entrepreneurial Studies.
The nuts and bolts of what most people consider "economic development" was described by Brad Cooksey, president of the Lawton Fort Sill Economic Development Corporation, whose mission is to assist in the creation of quality jobs for the Lawton area.
What Lawton needs are "Tier One" jobs, jobs that are not supported primarily by the local economy and whose goods and services are paid for largely by people outside the community. Those can include manufacturing - Lawton isn't going to buy all, or even a small fraction, of the tires the Goodyear plant produces - and even the military. Those are the jobs that increase population, produce retail businesses and jobs and spur housing construction.
Attracting those Tier One jobs isn't easy, Cooksey said. Lawton has some specific liabilities: lack of industrial park space that is ready for immediate development; few suitable industrial buildings; lack of utilities; and lack of financial incentives.
What has become clear to the Economic Development Corporation is that most industrial prospects want or require rail service, and Lawton has little to offer in that regard, Cooksey said. The truth is that
Lawton has been showing land it doesn't own and doesn't have necessary improvement in hopes of landing a prospect, he said.
The corporation does own some land, but it's either scarce (20 acres in the West Industrial Park), can't have rail service (70 acres in the Airport Industrial Park) or doesn't have utilities (480 acres near Goodyear). On the west side, Cooksey said, the supply of natural gas is a special concern.
The corporation, under the leadership of former Great Plains Technology Center Superintendent Tom Thomas, has developed cost estimates for developing industrial land. That information is being shared with county and city officials.
Lawton also has few financial incentives, Cooksey said. The Comanche County Industrial Development Authority is the chief provider of incentives, but its funding is limited and lags behind communities such as Duncan, Enid, Ardmore, Chickasha, Muskogee and Ponca City, he said, and their economic development organizations also have larger staffs.
Wheels are beginning to turn on developing land, Cooksey said, and the community does have many advantages: a large number of military retirees, a good location, cheap utilities and land, a good workforce and educational institutions and business development programs.
Cooksey also said that Tier One jobs created by retaining and expanding local businesses often aren't valued as highly as jobs from new companies. He said the Economic Development Corporation has been involved with 188 jobs that have been created since last July, all of them through expansion and retention and all of them create the same benefits for the local economy as do jobs from new firms.
Lawton also has some successes to build upon.
"If it's good enough for the biggest Goodyear (plant) in the world, why isn't it good enough for you?" he asked.
He also told the class members they should try to create a positive atmosphere, especially on social media.
"Please take up for us," he said. "Take up for your city."
"Please take a stand for the good of Lawton, for the good of what we're trying to do here."
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