Economic agency is retooling after state fund cuts

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Business Today

JEFFERSON CITY -- Following a major reorganization necessitated by three years of budget cuts, Missouri Department of Economic Development officials hope to create a streamlined and more efficient agency.

But department director Joe Driskill acknowledged it will no longer be able to offer all of the services businesses used in the past.

For example, people considering new businesses used to be able to call the department with questions about the process. They will now be forwarded to other organizations with expertise in the subject.

"While that service is very important, we can no longer afford to operate a toll-free phone line and dedicate staff to essentially offer advice," Driskill said.

DED general revenue funding for the current fiscal year is almost $23 million less than it was three years ago. As a result, general revenue-funded staff positions have been cut from 216 to 113.

Under the departmental reorganization, two divisions - business development and business expansion and attraction - were merged into the new Division of Business Services. Whereas three years ago the two divisions had combined general revenue budgets of $16.8 million and 67 workers, the unified agency has a $7.3 million budget and 39 staff members.

On Aug. 5, Southeast Missouri State University announced the hiring of Dennis Roedemeier, the displaced former head of the old Division of Business Development, to a $125,000-a-year job as executive director of the school's new Innovation Center, which will help encourage economic development in the region.

Driskill said DED has been spread thin in recent years and that the streamlined agency will be able to put greater focus on the department's core missions of job creation, job retention and community development.

Mitch Robinson, executive director of the Cape Girardeau Area Industrial Recruitment Association, said the cutbacks at DED have had an impact on economic growth in Southeast Missouri.

"Like all state agencies, cuts can be made," Robinson said. "But it has gotten to the point now where the fat has been trimmed away and we are cutting into bone."

Of particular significance was last year's closure of DED's regional offices, including one in Dexter. Robinson said having geographically accessible department officials proved beneficial.

"It is a problem getting people down from Jefferson City with the loss of the regional offices," Robinson said.

DED recently created a "regional team" of department officials with expertise in Southeast Missouri. It is the first of six planned teams that will focus on various areas of the state.

Although those teams will operate out of the capital city, Driskill said they will be able to address the unique economic development needs and assets of individual regions. Mike Seabaugh, who formerly headed the Dexter office, will lead the Southeast Missouri team.

Jim Grebing, a DED spokesman, said there will be less specialization within the department and more partnerships with other public and private economic development groups, which ultimately should make it easier for businesses to get what they need.

"To businesses that need help, they really don't care who is providing the services," Grebing said. "They don't want to be passed through a phone tree of four or five people. They want the services."

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