MU Extension program is state’s best-kept economic development secret

photo: Steve Devlin, director of extension business development program.

Contributed by Steve Devlin, director of extension’s Business Development Program and assistant dean for entrepreneurship in the MU College of Engineering.

A recent study conducted by Thumbtack.com, a San Francisco professional services firm, and supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City gave Missouri an average grade for its small-business climate.

A number of survey items contributed to that score, including topics such as regulations, licensing, ease of starting a business and the level of government support. The lowest grade contributing to that overall score came from one item that read: “Does your state or local government offer helpful training or networking programs for small-business owners?” Missouri respondents to the nationwide survey gave the state an “F” in response to this question.

While we could easily explain the failing grade by questioning the study methodology — i.e., score reflects only one item in a 33-item survey; 80 percent of respondents resided in metropolitan areas; and all respondents were users of Thumbtack.com, which might limit the industry and geographic diversity of the sample — we prefer to inform readers about the training and networking support for Missouri businesses provided by the University of Missouri Extension Business Development Program (BDP) and its partners at 11 state colleges and universities, Missouri Enterprise, the Innovation Centers and a wide range of local collaborators in 32 locations statewide.

In the past three years, in cooperation with our partners, the BDP has presented educational opportunities in management, marketing, finance, international trade, government contracting and many other topics to more than 36,000 business owners and entrepreneurs. We provided one-to-one education to more than 9,700 businesses in individualized consultations. Through our network’s close partnerships with chambers of commerce, economic developers, business support organizations and educational experts, we introduced our clients to new audiences and thousands of opportunities for collaboration, resources and research.

But we are not a government program. We are educators, aligned with and employed by educational institutions. Although our core funding comes from federal and state agencies and is matched by the colleges and universities that host our programs, our clients see our programs as extensions of the institutions in their local market. It is unlikely the respondents to the Thumbtack.com survey thought of our programs when offering their responses.

Likewise, although government programs often are viewed as regulatory and interested in larger economic development projects, such as bringing a large business to a community, BDP programs, such as the Missouri Small Business & Technology Development Centers, the Missouri Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, the Mid-America Trade Adjustment Assistance Center, the Environmental Assistance Center, the Make It In America project and the Workforce Program, are viewed as providing education that helps business owners and managers solve problems and refine their business processes and practices to ensure their long-term competitiveness.

The funding that supports BDP initiatives comes with specific guidelines for its use. For instance, we are prohibited from using it for promotion and marketing. We often are called the state’s best-kept economic development secret. But the clients we assist see real results from our educational efforts. From 2011-13:

  • The BDP assisted its clients in realizing sales increases totaling $666 million.
  • Our clients attracted investments totaling more than $661 million.
  • Our clients won government contracts totaling more than $608 million.

The BDP generates $102 of economic impact for every $1 invested in the program.

We are efficient and effective educators, delivering great benefit to the state and transforming companies.

Interestingly enough, Forbes recently released its 16th annual list of the Best Places for Business and Careers, a list of the top 200 U.S. locations for doing business. Three Missouri cities — St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield — made the list, and five others made the list as the Best Small Places for Business and Careers — Columbia, Cape Girardeau, St. Joseph, Jefferson City and Joplin.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the BDP offers educational programs and business development assistance in all of those locations.

If the BDP can help, visit http://MissouriBusiness.net to learn more.