Four area women make their mark in economic development

Jen Berti, Vice President of Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce.

“A diverse mix of voices leads to better discussions, decisions, and outcomes for everyone,” said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google.

In the male-dominated field of economic development those voices come from at least four women in Southeast Missouri, who play crucial roles in their communities and Southeast Missouri as a whole.

Jen Berti, vice president of the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce; Felecia Blanton, Richmond + Blanton in Sikeston, Missouri; Adrienne Henry, real estate and lease administration at Drury Southwest; and Morgan McIntosh, executive director of Downtown Poplar Bluff Inc. spoke with B Magazine about why it’s important for women to take a seat at the table and join the conversation.

According to the California Association of Local Economic Development, economic development means different things to different people. On a broad scale, anything a community does to foster and create a healthy economy can fall under the auspice of economic development.

Discussing economic development involves three areas: business retention, business expansion, and business creation. Each of the women have expertise in these categories and believe having their voices heard benefits the larger community. They are fueled by acting as a connector between business owners and the community and exude passion for their towns.

Jen Berti, Jackson

Jen Berti is not a Jackson native, but her enthusiasm for the town is apparent. Five years ago, at 34 weeks pregnant, she and her husband, Michael, moved to Jackson from St. Louis for Michael’s job at Procter & Gamble.

“I just really like it here,” Berti, now a mom of two sons, told B Magazine. “It is a great place for us to raise our kids.”

Berti’s job is split between the City of Jackson and the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce. She was hired as the director of retail development in January 2016 and was promoted to vice president of the Jackson chamber in June 2019. Her role represents the relationship between the city and chamber working together to bring more businesses to Jackson.

“I love just being able to help businesses grow and succeed. I love being able to celebrate when businesses open. I love to see the potential of more businesses coming to Jackson,” she said.

Berti is the first person to have this role in Jackson.

“That is exciting for me. I could kind of help create it. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities to grow in this position, and that’s what I wanted,” she said.

Recruiting a new business to any city takes time, along with many other considerations, she said.

“It’s not always an immediate, ‘Yes, we’ll come.’ It’s, ‘We’re looking at your market, but here are some factors.’”

For example, a retailer may say no right now, but their plans could change.

“Our population continues to grow and our school district continues to be amazing and houses continue to be built here,” Berti said.

Working with local retailers and property owners, helping find franchisees for certain businesses, and working with the developers in the area is a major part of her job.

“Really, what it comes down to is the need to have relationships with a lot of individuals to make things happen,” she said.

In addition, she recruits by targeting businesses that have been identified as desirable to Jackson through contacting brokers and real estate managers, sending information about Jackson, including growth and demographics.

Once Berti learns what a potential business needs, she works with local real estate agents, developers and property owners to determine which location would work best. From that point forward, she mostly works as the facilitator, a role she enjoys.

“It’s rewarding for me to create a relationship for individuals who may not have crossed paths. I love the relationships that can be built and understanding who all needs to be involved in a business transaction,” she said.

The chamber serves an important role in not only recruiting new businesses but also keeping businesses plugged into the community, helping their success.

“If we know that a business is struggling, we meet with them one-on-one, whether it be in person or via zoom, to understand what they need from us and how we can help this business succeed and how we can help them to stay in Jackson,” Berti said.

Along with Meredith Pobst and Sarah Gerau, Berti founded the Jackson Chamber Women’s Impact Network (WIN) in May 2018 when they felt a program focusing on women in the community was needed.

The chamber held WIN luncheons every other month for around 90 women each time, featuring speakers who were educational and inspirational. In 2020, the meetings went virtual because of the pandemic but they’re hoping to start back with in-person luncheons in March.

Chamber of Commerce Executives of Missouri awarded the Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce an Award of Excellence for Women’s Impact Network in November.

“I will never tire of talking about it because I’m proud of it,” Berti said.

Berti said women “have the knowledge, we have the skills and we always say with our women’s network, ‘When women support each other, incredible things happen.’ And it’s absolutely so true.”

Berti reflected on the importance of showing her two boys she is the right person for the job, and she’s meant to be the vice president of the chamber.

“To have Brian (Gerau) and the mayor say, ‘Jen Berti is the one for this role,’ that’s a big deal,” she said.

Aside from the WIN program, Berti is proud to discuss the approximately 30 businesses that have chosen to locate in Jackson over the last four years.

“This is such a beautiful thing to see so many businesses investing in Jackson, and choosing Jackson as their new or their next location.”

Moving into 2021, effort will turn to building exits 99 and 102 on Interstate 55.

“Our focus is to have a plan in place for the types of businesses that can go on those exits.”

Using Jimmy John’s sandwich shop as a success story, she said: “That was a big deal because I played a huge role in connecting the real estate manager with the franchisee, so it was just really exciting for me to see all that come to fruition.

Other highlights Berti shared:

• Scooter’s Coffee opening the first drive-thru coffee shop in Jackson.

• Domino’s Pizza rebuilding a new and bigger location on Main Street.

• Blazin’ Car Wash coming to town.

• The move of GearHeads Auto Repair & Diesel to Jackson.

• And several new business opening in Uptown Jackson.

“There are a lot of people that are involved in the recruitment of businesses coming to Jackson, and I just love being a part of that equation. I really do.”

Felecia Blanton, Sikeston

Felecia Blanton is principal of Richmond + Blanton public relations in Sikeston. She works as a consultant in the areas of health care and economic development.

One of her clients is Mike Marshall, the economic development director for the Sikeston Area Economic Development Corp. and CEO of the Sikeston Regional Chamber.

“I’m passionate about community development,” Blanton, former marketing director of Saint Francis Healthcare System, told B Magazine. “Connecting the right people, that’s kind of what I do.”

Blanton describes her role as putting together decision makers, or stakeholders, in conditions that can develop into something that would be economically advantageous.

She helps strategize how to attract businesses and industries by identifying what individuals to work with and helping them communicate with government officials, such as the Sikeston City Council, Scott County Commission and the regional planning group.

Although the goal is to identify Sikeston’s assets and market them to those groups, Blanton acknowledges “what’s good for this area is good for everyone. What Cape may have may help Sikeston; what Sikeston may have may help Cape. Same with (Poplar) Bluff. It’s kind of like a triangle of an area where those kinds of things affect us all.”

She has spent quite a bit of energy working with a group of stakeholders for a future Interstate 57 extension, with a goal of connecting Chicago to Little Rock, Arkansas. The group of stakeholders Blanton works with includes Poplar Bluff — specifically the Highway 67 Commission — Dexter and Sikeston. Participants include representation from the offices of U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley, as well as U.S. Rep. Jason Smith in addition to city managers and county commissioners.

“If we could get a designated interstate through Southeast Missouri, who knows where we can go from here,” she said.

Why is she passionate about these projects?

“We as citizens, whether private citizens, elected officials, or people that do this for a living, like consultants, have a responsibility to the community, to themselves, to the future ... and to future residents here. If your child wants to continue to live here, be educated here, raise a family here, those are the things that are really important,” Blanton said.

Strengthening this part of the state has become a focus for Blanton. Through her time spent traveling around Missouri, she recognizes the Bootheel represents a different demographic from cities.

“In Southeast Missouri, we have to stick up for ourselves. And if we don’t, we don’t get recognized,” she said.

Her latest project is Sikeston’s new agripark inside the Sikeston Business, Education and Technology Park. The agripark is 62 acres set aside to foster innovation related to agriculture, bio-based industries, fiber and food production.

“We’re sitting in the middle of a golden area — we’ve got the Mississippi River Delta; we’ve got the interstate section of 55 and 57 sitting in Southeast Missouri; we’ve got the richest farmland, got huge amount of farmers, and we have an educational system that supports agriculture with Southeast Missouri State and Three Rivers,” Blanton said.

The Sikeston Area Economic Development Corp. is looking for smaller agricultural-based groups and industries.

“We think we have the resources where we’re sitting,” she said.

And it appears they’ve had some success.

“There are some very exciting things” happening in the near future at the agripark, Blanton said.

All of these successes take individuals working together to bring a project to completion and accomplish a goal. Blanton said she believes “it’s best to bring in a whole group of people with different perspectives, sometimes diverse opinions, and a little discourse, to say, ‘Where are we?’ And to keep the group focused and moving.”

Oftentimes the only woman in a group focused on economic development, Blanton recognizes women bring diverse characteristics and strengths.

“Women play an exceptional role in all forms and walks of life, whether it’s sitting at the table with someone making a multimillion-dollar decision on a business, or helping someone pass a school bond issue to build a new school,” she said. “I think women give a new, very unique perspective; who they are, how they conduct their life and how they are tied to their families, and also bring a very good sense of compassion. Not that that’s better than anyone else’s,” she adds, “It’s not; it’s just part of the mix.”

When talking about quality of life, employment, job quality and quality of education, Blanton encourages women to speak up and share their opinions and ideas. From her conversations with businesses looking to locate to Southeast Missouri, “they want to see that diversity.”

To the point of diversity, Blanton said, “We’ve been working in Sikeston in a diversity movement towards letting people know we want people of all walks of lives involved in our economic development — we need them. There are lots of uncovered gems that we found in our community by just expanding our reach and inviting people with more diversity to the table.”

For 2021, Sikeston is going be home to two new school buildings, according to Blanton. And “with some of the things that are coming together for future Interstate 57, we’re going to continue to show our federal officials that people in Poplar Bluff, Dexter and Sikeston, and Southeast Missouri in general, are serious about getting this project done.”

Adrienne Henry, Cape Girardeau

Adrienne Henry started her career with Drury Southwest 22 years ago, working in all sectors of the company, from accounting to operations to hotels, and ended up in the real estate department about seven years ago.

Henry handles all of the leasing and lease administration, and helps with development in Cape Girardeau. Drury Southwest has an office in San Antonio and restaurant locations across the country.

“I work with people everywhere. And I get to essentially sell Cape,” Henry said.

Henry is regularly in touch with national companies that have parameters for a city’s population to be 50,000 or 75,000 before they even look at a market.

“When they see that Cape is under 50,000, they write it off automatically. So it’s my job to sell them on the idea that we are a regional hub and we grow to 100,000 daily, and getting them to realize that this is a viable market.”

Henry said what she loves about her job — and the most important part of her job — is building relationships.

“You may call people once a month for five years, literally, before anything ever moves. So you really get to know people,” she said. “I want them to think of me when they think of Cape. I want them to remember that we’re here and want to work with them.”

Making sure a business arrangement is successful has many factors and takes a lot of time. And it could result in the business remaining in the area for a long time.

Larry Westrich, her supervisor and mentor, told her something she reflects on frequently: “You want every deal to be a win-win for long-term success. If it’s not going to be a good deal for the company (Drury Southwest), it’s not going to be a good deal for the retailer, restaurant or office.”

Henry’s role at Drury Southwest allows her to build relationships with businesses at varying levels of involvement.

“We are kind of a one-stop shop for businesses. We have a construction team that can build it; we have a property management team that can maintain it; we have architects that can design it,” she said.

Even though Henry’s job is to recruit businesses to town, she’s a supporter of all economic development in Southeast Missouri.

“Even if we don’t make a deal as a company, we still want that business to come to Cape,” she said. “It’s really about being on the same team as a city and as developers in the city.”

Most of the conversations she has across the country are with men.

“That’s the reality of it,” she said. “It is rare that I work with a lot of other women. I’m hoping that we can change that.”

Henry encourages women to “make sure that we show up and take a seat at the table when it’s available, and a lot of times as women we shy away from those. But it’s important.”

Even though most of the Drury properties are on the west side of town, Henry finds importance in being involved in downtown development, as well, serving on the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Commission for Downtown Cape.

“Downtown development is just as valuable as new development out here on this side of town. As long as something is coming to Cape and we’re growing, the entire city wins. It doesn’t matter what area or what developer is doing it. It’s all a win for the city.”

Henry has two recent accomplishments she’s very proud of. One is the new VA Health Care Center, which was a land lease agreement.

“When the project came about, we realized as a company that it was probably a little more than what we could handle, as far as the development of it,” she said, “So, we started having discussions with other companies that run VA medical centers across the country, and narrowed it down to some of the best in that field. We partnered with them to win the contract. It’s a huge valuable thing for the city overall.”

The second is Chili’s restaurant, which opened last month.

“That took many, many years. That was one of those call-all-the-time ones, to where everybody knows that you’re probably going to be calling that week. And it’s finally happened. Nothing happens overnight,” she said.

For Drury Southwest in 2021, the company will be focused on redeveloping the former Ruby Tuesday site near the corner of South Mount Auburn Road and William Street into a strip center by reaching out to existing and new contacts to get the space leased.

Henry is in charge of more than 250,000 square feet Drury Southwest leases out in Cape.

“Not only do we lease it, we have a team of people available 24/7 that handle the property management. It really is a huge team effort.”

Morgan McIntosh, Poplar Bluff

As the executive director of Downtown Poplar Bluff Inc., Morgan McIntosh is in charge of several annual downtown events and fundraisers for beautification projects, but her biggest priority is economic development of the historic district, from bringing new business downtown to restoring buildings in the district.

“We need to save the buildings downtown and bring in new businesses and tax revenue,” McIntosh said. “What’s good for down here is good for the city.”

The first step in the process is figuring out what buildings are for sale, and what building owners would be willing to part with, she said.

“Some people have just never been approached,” she said. “We can have all the events down here we want, but if the buildings are starting to crumble, there won’t be a downtown.”

As for which businesses she’s targeting to have a presence downtown, McIntosh has big plans for Vine Street.

“I would like to see that just really take off,” she said. “I’d like for families to come down and spend an entire day in downtown, have breakfast and do some shopping — things for the whole family to do in addition to a nightlife.”

She also would like to find occupants for two distinct downtown properties — one was the previous Bank of Poplar Bluff and the other was Commerce Bank.

“They are enormous and in great shape; beautiful buildings,” she said.

What McIntosh loves most about her job is the ability to meet with downtown businesses or property owners and hear what their plans and their dreams are, then seeing how she can help. She also enjoys meeting with business owners interested in moving downtown and helping find them a home.

She uses a coffee shop, Foxtrot Coffee, as an example of the ability for downtown to thrive.

“I love seeing them do well and love seeing people switch from Starbucks to them,” she said. “People that I normally wouldn’t see go out of their way to come downtown for something because they love them so much.”

Because of their success in downtown Poplar Bluff, Foxtrot is expanding to Dexter, Missouri.

Selling downtown Poplar Bluff comes naturally to this lifelong resident. And she recognizes the uniqueness of the brick streets, or cobblestone, which were paved with brick in 1912.

In addition to the charm of the cobblestone streets, downtown Poplar Bluff carries a rich history, including a tornado in 1927 that tore through the area, killing 98 people and ripping tops off many buildings. McIntosh said she believes with all the history comes potential and sees a responsibility to continue to preserve the buildings that survived.

McIntosh personally gets involved in helping downtown businesses succeed, even repainting the storefront sign for Jim Faith’s Business Equipment, which remains the only office supply store, other than Walmart, after Office Depot closed in November.

“They survived Office Depot coming into town and leaving. The sign was aged and wearing off, and so I got paint, grabbed a council member and repainted the whole front of their building.”

Most everyone McIntosh works with is male, but she said having strong female and male leaders in the community is important.

“There are conversations that you want to be a part of that you may not always get to. I don’t know if that’s because I’m female or if it’s just because they think I’m young or new to the position, but it’s in the back of my mind, ‘If I were a male, would I be at the table?’”

Not being taken seriously at times has happened to McIntosh, but she recently felt a shift in her current role.

“I’ve actually joined a couple of boards; I sit on the board for Smart Space, a nonprofit. That was really big to me as the first board that I got asked to join.

“It does feel good to be asked to join things and have your opinion heard and [know] your voice matters,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh’s biggest accomplishment so far came on a cold, rainy winter day. She, the former mayor and six men from the men’s shelter completely cleaned out a downtown building in order for the sale to go through. The details of what will occupy that building haven’t been fully revealed, but she’s said, “We expect to have some sort of new restaurant come in. It’s going to change so much for down here.”

Looking to 2021, McIntosh has plans to host more events to draw people downtown. The original plan was to have bands come in and play, but those plans have been put on hold because of COVID.

“We do have just about a whole block of development that’s being done right now,” she said.

She has had the opportunity to sit down with the architect and investor, going floor-by-floor and room-by-room to see what the buildings are going to look like.

“Once that whole block is finished and once the restaurant comes in, it’s going to be a different downtown. It’s going to change drastically.”