The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Southeast Missouri State University and Economic Development in the Delta

Posted on February 27, 2008 at 12:40 PM

The Fourth Mission–Southeast Missouri State University’s Economic Development Work in the Delta

Dennis Roedemeier, CEO of Missouri Research Corporation (MRC), answers questions in this interview about the relationship between universities and economic development in the Delta. The Missouri Research Corporation is the economic development arm of Southeast Missouri State University. Dennis Roedemeier and Christy LeGrand of MRC have been speakers at Delta Grassroots Caucus events, as has President Ken Dobbins of Southeast Missouri State University.

Q: Do communities understand the relationship between economic development and universities? Do they know what the fourth mission is?

A: I believe I am correct when I say that most communities do not know where to begin in their quest to develop an economic strategy, much less on how to utilize the available resources of their local universities. In fact, many may even think universities don’t care. I’m here to say to you today that yes, they do care about economic development, so much so that many universities are adopting economic development as their “fourth mission” right behind education, research and community service.

Q: Who is the Missouri Research Corporation and why does it exist? A: In the summer of 2003, the President of Southeast Missouri State decided his University needed three things:
(1) a not-for-profit corporation that could be economically aggressive and at the same time shield the university from frivolous lawsuits; (2) a commercialization organization that looked and functioned as a private business; and (3) an entity that operates as a business “vehicle” that could move more quickly than a plodding, bureaucratic university.

Q: Where does the Missouri Research Corporation call home? A: Our Missouri Research Corporation is physically located on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and is the economic development arm for this rural regional university. The Bootheel of Missouri is one of the poorer regions of the country. The congressional district that covers most of our service region is the 14th poorest of 435 districts in the nation. Missouri Research was given a list of major tasks to accomplish right out of the gate. The Southeast University President, Dr. Ken Dobbins, wanted to:

  1. Establish a state-sanctioned Innovation Center in Cape Girardeau. The only Centers at that time were located on University of Missouri campuses in Rolla, Columbia, Kansas City, and St. Louis;
  2. Obtain federal funding for a new interchange off of I-55 to access the old university farm that would be converted into a mixed-use research village; and
  3. Establish a business incubator on campus and fill it.

Q: Where are you on that list today? A: Those three tasks are complete and in the brief history of Missouri Research Corporation. In addition, Missouri Research has brought more research to the campus, has established a nationally-recognized entrepreneurial training program and has consolidated resources under one roof to help countless businesses get started and succeed. Missouri Research is without a doubt the true economic development arm of the university.

Q: What is next for the MRC? A: We embark this spring upon a new Community Leadership Initiative that will introduce the “jump-start” concept to smaller communities in Southeast Missouri that have all the ingredients and the will to grow, but need some guidance. We are targeting sample communities that range in population from about 1,500 to about 7,500. We will work closely with them to develop customized programs that will help them focus and achieve.

Q: Where did this concept for leadership training come from? A: It came from a Missouri town called Cuba. In the early 1980’s this little town, population 2,100, was much like small towns sprinkled throughout the Delta Region. There were plant closures, high unemployment, and a dying downtown. The future looked bleak for Cuba. They had two choices: die or fight. They chose to fight for survival. The IDA - Industrial Development Authority decided to formulate a plan to save the town. I was president of that group at the time. Their concentrated efforts earned them coverage on the NBC Today Show, the Wall Street Journal, the National Governors’ Association, and in the New York Times. The Community Leadership Initiative came out of the Cuba experience and our vision is to implement it in southeast Missouri towns.

Q: What were the key elements of the Cuba plan? A: Here are a couple of steps communities throughout the Delta may want to employ to enjoy similar successes to those of Cuba, Missouri. (1) You must identify the one lead organization in the community that will take on the economic development task. Once that is done, everyone should and get out of the way and let them do it, or better yet, join them and support them. In other words, everybody must get on the SAME PAGE and unite to fight.

(2) Don’t get caught up in committees and think tanks. Devise a plan that includes some things everyone can agree to do, and just do them. Don’t discuss them to death, don’t drag out the plan, just do them. Speed is your friend. By focusing on some solid tasks to accomplish and getting some quick results, the momentum will excite the town and fuel the citizens to take on more.

(3) Positive media is a key ingredient in this mix. If your paper prints the bad news and negative stories on the front page, who wins? It isn’t that difficult in a smaller community to make the media your partner. Put the uplifting stories on the front page and watch the town become inspired and motivated.

(4) Get the banks actively on board. You can do everything right but unless they local banks actively support this effort, it will not work. Their investment in the local economy is critical to economic and community development success.

(5) Call your local university and talk to the individual designated to help with economic development and discuss how they may be able to help. They may be looking for communities that are actively seeking help. Don’t forget about your state economic development agency as well. They exist to help your community grow and prosper. Remember is is your plan, not the state plan.

Q: This happened in the 80’s. Haven’t things changed since then? A: The only thing we can count on is change. The major change I have seen is the importance of the entrepreneur to small communities. Back in 1984, Cuba used industrial recruitment as a key component to revitalize its economy. This technique is still used and is somewhat effective, but is rapidly being replaced in favor of small cities and towns “growing their own” business and industry through entrepreneurship. Missouri Research has designed an entrepreneurial development model that has been very successful in generating new businesses that have an unusually high survival rate. We call it Operation Jump-Start. We recently received funding to expand it from southeast Missouri deeper into the Mississippi Delta region.

Q: Are there other tools and resources communities can turn to? A: Another additional tool we are currently working on is a book. We hope this book will be available in late spring or early summer this year. We’re calling the book (guess what?) The Fourth Mission. One purpose of the book is to give communities insight on how to understand and work with universities on community development issues. Our hope is that we can help Jump-Start communities particularly in Missouri and in the Delta region to set in motion strong economic growth, development of their own future employers, and becoming part of the global economy.

If you are interested in receiving more information on some of the exciting concepts we are employing that can help your business or community, give us a call or drop us an email: Dennis Roedemeier 573-651-2287 or Christy LeGrand 573-651-2078