Seeking an economic boost

Monday, July 9, 2007
The display window of Dacus Discount store reflected a moped making its way through Chaffee's downtown Friday on Yoakum Avenue. An enterprise zone through Scott County could potentially attract business and industry to Chaffee's once prosperous district. (Kit Doyle)

CHAFFEE, Mo. -- Chaffee's downtown is like that found in many other small towns: a place that bustled with commerce during the early part of the 20th century when the Frisco line brought train passengers to and took them from the depot there.

Today the picture is much different: a place where the small businesses that remain are interspersed with shops of many kinds that closed their doors long ago.

"We're just kind of sitting still here in Chaffee," said Pete Dooley, a State Farm insurance agent and president of the Chaffee Chamber of Commerce. "We're not seeing much growth."

The problem is widely identified among business and government leaders in Chaffee -- almost every candidate in the April election campaign used attracting business as a major platform plank.

The state of business in Chaffee and other towns and rural areas in Scott County has prompted the Scott County Commission to look for ways to attract economic enterprise. The county commission is in the process of establishing an Enhanced Enterprise Zone -- a geographical area in which new or expanding business (with some exceptions like retail business) is eligible for state and local tax incentives.

On Thursday commissioners may make appointments to an Enhanced Enterprise Zone, or EEZ, board, which will then send an application to the Missouri Department of Economic Development to see if the zone is eligible for state tax credits, said county developer Joel Evans.

An area has already been identified that will meet the criteria of an EEZ -- at least 60 percent of residents have incomes below 90 percent of the median income of all residents and the area's unemployment rate is equal to or exceeds the average rate of unemployment for the state or county.

Scott County, working with the Bootheel Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission, took 25 tries at finding an area that will meet the criteria.

Evans said because it's still early in the process he's reluctant to release a map of the qualifying area, but said the area covers Scott City, Chaffee, Miner, Diehlstadt, Blodgett, Morley and Vanduser, as well areas adjacent to the county's transportation infrastructures, a key priority identified by commissioners.

New and expanding business locating in the zone is eligible for up to 10 years of 50 percent property tax abatement, but the level is determined by the seven-member board made up of five appointees of the county government, one appointed by local school boards and one appointed by other taxing entities in the zone area. The board also determines what type of industries to target with the tax incentives.

The state government began the program in 2004. Since that time 34 zones have been established, with seven located in Southeast Missouri: Malden and part of Dunklin County, New Madrid, Pemiscot County, Charleston and part of Mississippi County, Kennett and part of Dunklin County, Sikeston and Wayne County.

No studies have been conducted to see how well the programs actually work because the program is so new, said Aaron Rackers, an incentive specialist with the Missouri Department of Economic Development. However, Rackers said the department is tracking the effectiveness of the programs, which will be measured in the amount and quality of jobs created.

So far the incentives have attracted two companies to Sikeston's EEZ -- Ace Building Systems, a manufacturer of wall, floor and floor panel, and Bootheel Agri-Energy, an ethanol plant.

"It's another tool for our toolbox. We're in a four or five state area we compete with every day ... it's just another incentive to get an advantage," said Ed Dust, director of economic development in Sikeston.

Not everyone is confident the incentive system can really make a difference, though. "All it is a tax break," said a Chaffee businessman who wished to remain anonymous and said he's skeptical instituting an EEZ would even help the local economy.

And property tax abatements have the potential of opposition from school districts who won't see the full tax benefits for 10 years.

Kelly schools' superintendent Don Moore isn't familiar with the EEZ concept, but when the process was explained to him, Moore said he sees a real potential benefit that would outweigh the extra taxes a school district wouldn't receive.

"I think economic development within the district is a good thing, if it's going to benefit the patrons of the district that would build a tax base indirectly," said Moore.

Tax revenue alone doesn't make a district a good one, said Moore. Families with higher incomes also help student success.

The establishment of an EEZ might not bring industry directly into Chaffee's downtown, where buildings once housed mainly retail operations that aren't eligible for EEZ credits. But the indirect benefits could help -- with more people in town making more money, other businesses could spring up to serve their needs.

"I think a lot of people from Cape and Jackson and places like that would move to a smaller town," Dooley said.

"We'd like people to come to our county to work instead of going outside of Scott County to work," said Scott County Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger.

335-6611, extension 182

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