The Capitol Plaza Hotel and Convention Center was bustling with activity Friday afternoon as local business, community, government and non-profit leaders gathered in the ballroom for the State of the City & County.
The focus of the program was Jefferson City and Cole County's workforce, with special attention given to the housing and childcare crises.
The Capitol Plaza ballroom was furnished with dozens of round dining tables, set formally with cheesecake, tea and coffee for the crowd of visitors. In the back of the room sat two buffets, serving pasta and salad to keep the audience happy during the hour-long program.
Spread throughout the room were a variety of local leaders, including Cole County Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman and Eastern Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher, former Jefferson City mayor Carrie Tergin and current mayor Ron Fitzwater, several members of the Jefferson City council and staff members from several businesses and non-profits, including Ameren, Hitachi Energy, Scholastic, United Way and SSM Health/St. Mary's Hospital.
Ashley Varner from Hitachi Energy kicked off the program by introducing Bushman and Fitzwater, who gave opening remarks.
Bushman started by talking about workforce housing. He emphasized that workforce housing developments in the area aren't low-income housing, rather, they're affordable places to live for the middle-class workers employed at places like Hitachi, Scholastic and Unilever.
He added some of the housing can be luxury housing, for those employees making even higher salaries.
"We need to act now, we need to create apartments, both middle-class and upper-class. We need all kinds of housing here in Jefferson City and Cole County, and we've got to start moving ahead on this right now," Bushman said.
Bushman said the city and county need to build housing to bring in more workers for the various industries in the area. He said in the last 10 years, Jefferson City only grew by around 200 people, according to the 2020 census.
While COVID-19 may have skewed the census, he said, there's still no growth happening.
"We've got to grow. We're at a crossroads; we either grow or we die. I don't want to see us die," Bushman said.
Fitzwater opened up his remarks by reiterating something he said after being elected.
"Jefferson City is open for business," Fitzwater said.
He said the city wants to make it as easier as possible for businesses and developers to build, invest and work in the community.
Fitzwater said the city has a good staff that's going to create new pathways for investment in the community.
One issue, he said, is the community must have good partners to work with in order for the city to succeed. He said Gary Plummer and the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce have already done great work in that regard and he looks forward to doing more with them.
Another critical part of the plan, he said, is the school system. From K-12 schools to Lincoln University, Fitzwater said, the city needs good education programs to grow.
If local government, businesses and schools can all work together, he said, the housing issue can be addressed.
"We're making the city a better place to live. Our responsibility at City Hall is to create that platform. I'm a limited government-type individual, but I know there's a role for government. We've got to develop that platform so you (business leaders) can do what you're successful at," Fitzwater said.
With the opening remarks finished, Susan Cook-Williams, the executive director of River City Habitat for Humanity and the chair of the Capitol City Housing Task Force transitioned into the meat of the program.
Fitzwater and Bushman, along with four other leaders, took to the state for a panel on housing. Among them were: Greg Callahan, the factory manager for Hitachi Energy; Heath Garvin, the senior vice president of Scholastic; Luke Holtschneider, the CEO of the Jefferson City Regional Economic Partnership; and Logan Gratz, broker and auctioneer at Gratz Real Estate and Auctioneering.
Cook-Williams began the panel by asking Holtschneider if housing has an opportunity to improve economic conditions.
"Yes," Holtschneider said.
The audience laughed at Holtschnieder's very brief response. He went on to explain that housing is critical to improving the economy because economic growth and success are all based on population.
Some of the biggest challenges to moving forward as a community and increasing wealth, he said, are becoming a place people want to live in and ensuring there are places for those people to live.
He said the population has remained steadily flat for the last two decades. While the community does have great health care and education to entice people to live in the area, Holtschneider said, there simply aren't places for them to live.
The second question was posed to Garvin, who's been at Scholastic for more than 25 years. Cook-Williams asked how he had seen the housing issue evolve for Scholastic employees over that time.
The first hurdle, he said, is the stigma around rental property being considered "low-income" when everyone wants to own a home. He said this stigma is something that needs to be moved past.
Affordable renting is a stepping stone to building capital and home ownership, Garvin said. He said he personally went through seven different rentals as his needs changed.
Now, he said, it's hard to find housing, even rentals, in Jefferson City. He recalls moving back from New York City and being unable to find a house on the market.
He said the city needs a competitive market so more efficient affordable rentals can be built. With this, he said, the city needs to ensure zoning is managed in a way that invites development and reliable transportation needs to be concentrated in these residential areas.
Following Garvin's response, Cook-Williams asked Gratz what needs to happen to streamline the housing development process.
Gratz said the city needs to have a mindset focused on enticing developers, rather than turning them away.
"We've got to as a city, as a county, have the open mindset that if somebody wants to spend money here, that we're gonna help them in any capacity so that they can do it," Gratz said.
As someone in the real estate industry, Gratz said, there really aren't many rentals available in the community right now. Something has to be done to entice those developers to keep investing in the community, he said.
"Let's go to you, Greg (Callahan). Your company just celebrated 50 years in Jefferson City, congratulations, how important is housing for your next 50 years?" Cook-Williams asked.
Callahan said housing is critically important. Callahan said he's only been in Jefferson City for about two years, and out of all the places in the United States he's worked over the years, he's never struggled so much to have a workforce that fulfills Hitachi Energy's needs as he has in Jefferson City.
He said demand for Hitachi's products is continuing to grow and the company needs people to keep up with it. He clarified there are two things Hitachi Energy needs to move forward: supply chain and workforce.
Callahan said they're fairly confident their supply chain is locked down, leaving workforce challenges as the only roadblock moving forward.
"We've got three companies here that decided to locate to Jefferson City for a lot of good reasons. You think about it from a logistics perspective, we're right in the middle of the country, so there's a lot of synergy there. As I've talked to (the CEOs of Scholastic and Unilever), they're investing, we're investing," Callahan said. "So we have our corporate support to grow in this community, but if we can't get the workforce in place, it's going to be hard to get the growth we're looking for."
One challenge to this, he said, is getting young people to pursue manufacturing careers. He said these are well-paying jobs that people can be happy with, and they need more promotion.
"We're committed to this community, and we're ready to do whatever we need to do to be successful," Callahan said.
Next on the list for questioning: the mayor.
Cook-Williams asked Fitzwater what role he personally plans to take on addressing the need for housing.
Fitzwater said he sees his role as having three parts.
The first is using the comprehensive housing study that was performed in the community. He said the city needs to pursue the ideas generated in the study.
The second piece, he said, is to put together a housing work group. He emphasized that he didn't want to "supplant" what's been done by the housing task force, but rather to take their work to a new level. He said the task force's report has many pieces and now those ideas need to be implemented.
The third part is to use his position as mayor to keep this issue at the forefront of the minds of the city's leaders. He specifically mentioned the City Council will be working on this issue.
One thing in particular that the council can work on, he said, is looking at how zoning can be used to make it easier for developers to build housing.
"The last thing is just keeping it in the public eye and continue to preach the message that we've got an opportunity for this community to just explode," Fitzwater said.
Taking the microphone from Fitzwater, Bushman explained the county's role in addressing housing needs.
One issue the community faces, Bushman said, is an aging workforce. He said the community needs young families to move to the area and take these jobs.
"We need these young people to come in and live in Jefferson City and raise their families here and just be a part of this community," Bushman said.
He said the county is and will continue to work with contractors and developers to build housing so those families want to move to Cole County.
The final question
"If you look down the road five years from now, what is your half-crazy-but-educated prediction about the next five years as it relates to housing? And maybe give us a little bit of a reason for hope," Cook-Williams said.
The panel all turned to Gratz.
Gratz said the city is going to need to see a lot more construction and hopefully the population will grow.
However, he said, he doesn't see any of the prices for housing going down in the short term as the cost of supplies, wages, land, etc. continue to rise or stay at high rates, and he doesn't see a crash coming like in 2008.
He said the city needs to take advantage of any funding that becomes available due to those high prices.
"I think inventory is going to be a struggle, I think construction is going to continue to be good, and we just need to keep developing," Gratz said.
Fitzwater added that Jefferson City needs to do its "moonshot." He said when President Kennedy came into office, he said the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
The country did, Fitzwater said, although Kennedy wasn't there to see it.
"I remember reading the story of them interviewing a janitor at NASA during that process, and they asked him what his job was. He said, 'My job is to put a man on the moon.' Everybody bought into the concept," Fitzwater said.
He said his goal is for Jefferson City's population to reach 50,000. Although it may not happen within five years, he said, the city has to keep a laser focus on building the community.
"So that's kind of my moonshot," Fitzwater said. "We've got to get everybody on task, and it's gotta be something the community gets involved with. I ask the media to hold us to task. When we're doing good things, talk about it. When we're not, call us out on it. But we've all got to be bought into this if we're going to be successful."