Southeast's polytechnic institute has a lot to offer

Monday, May 10, 2004

Southeast Missouri State University professor Greg Boyd believes he is sitting on one of the biggest business secrets in Cape Girardeau. Actually, he's sitting in it.

Boyd's office is on the top floor of the Otto and Della Seabaugh Polytechnic Building, which is about $10 million worth of building and equipment primarily used by the university's department of industrial and engineering technology. However, Boyd and some of his fellow faculty are trying to use these facilities and students to bring business and industry to Southeast Missouri.

"The school is a secret," Boyd said. "We should be able to use it as a marketing tool for the university and for the city."

Boyd said that when people are considering locating their businesses, they often see Cape Girardeau as a black hole of resources. He said that the university, specifically the polytechnic building, is overlooked and underused as a tool to help market the city as a haven for business and industry.

Using the polytechnic building as a business tool was actually the vision of Randy Shaw, dean of the School of Polytechnic Studies. When he came to Southeast in 1988, his charge was to turn around the school's industrial technology program. He split the program from the school of science and technology and decided to focus on manufacturing and its support, such as graphics and drafting.

With the new direction also came a commitment to keep the department's equipment and facilities as close to the cutting edge of technology as possible. In 2001, the budding program got a suitable home with the aid of Otto and Della Seabaugh, who donated more than $1 million to the construction of the $8 million building, which features a plethora of labs for practical graphics, multimedia production, networking, hydraulics, electronics, materials testing and assembly. Add to that an annual budget of about $300,000 worth of federal, state, grant and donation money to keep new Apple G5 CPUs under the desks and modern machinery on the floor. The sum is what Shaw now refers to as a benchmark program that trains students in both manufacturing theory and practical experience.

Both students and faculty

Boyd and Shaw said that the students walking the halls of the Seabaugh building not only offer area businesses and manufacturers a steady stream of workers but people who can help companies while still in school. Boyd said he has taken classes to certain plants in the area to conduct free testing and other projects. He's had classes doing process flow evaluations for one company and time and motion tests for another. It helps the students learn, he said, while providing a service for the businesses.

The school's faculty are also getting into the mix. Shaw said that the teachers are readily available for consulting work. Boyd has done free process work for Translectric in Jackson and bond strength testing for S&W Cabinets in Chaffee, Mo. He said he does this pro bono to build relationships with these companies that often yield free materials and other opportunities for the students. When he does charge a fee, he often puts at least some of the money back into equipment.

In addition to the human resources the school offers, the school's building and facilities also present area businesses with opportunity. The Seabaugh building features boardrooms, classrooms and computer labs that companies can use for free when not otherwise in use. Furthermore, businesses can bring employees to the building to use labs as sites for training and equipment demonstration. The building features a hall with ground floor, garage door access, where an industry could bring in a piece of heavy equipment, hook it up to the building's ample electric, water and gas outlets, and hold demonstrations for employees and students. They can do this without a rental fee, just a charge to cover the cost of utilities.

Taking it to the streets

With all this in place, Boyd is now focusing on getting the word out to local companies already in the area. He is hoping to create an information network that will let prospective businesses know that the polytechnic institute and its resources are there for the taking. He said he has approached local developers John and Jerri Wyman and real estate agent Tom M. Meyer, who could drop his name when searching for tenants for their buildings.

"It's hidden information," said Meyer. "When we have inquiries, we always bring the university to their attention."

But, he said, a lot of companies looking to relocate don't go as far as talking with real estate agents and developers. They give Cape Girardeau a once-over and don't see these hidden resources.

"We need to get it out there," Meyer said.

John Mehner, president of the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce, said that, while he understands where Boyd and Shaw are coming from, as far as the chamber is concerned, the Polytechnic Institute is not classified information.

"Anytime we're dealing with expansions or relocations, it's always on our list of stops," Mehner said. "It's a big part of what we do."

That notwithstanding, Boyd said, getting it out there is especially important in a time when the nation's manufacturing jobs are leaving these shores. To him, attracting and maintaining small and midsized manufacturing companies in Southeast Missouri is the prime directive.

"There's nothing more important than keeping manufacturing in Missouri," Boyd said. "If our manufacturing disappears, our standard of life disappears, period."

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