To Fight The ‘Brain Drain,’ Springfield’s Network Steps Up.

They’re the best and brightest of Springfield, but for decades, many locals have been taking their talents elsewhere. A new network in Springfield is trying to fight back and convince that talent to put down roots here in the Ozarks — and help grow this community.

story by Roman Stubbs / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published June 15, 2012

On June 7, 2007, the Springfield Cardinals beat the Tulsa Drillers 10-3 in a minor league baseball game at John Q. Hammons Field. It was about 80 degrees that evening, partly cloudy, a nice atmosphere for 6,800 people to take in one of the team’s most convincing wins of the season.

The most important victory of that night didn’t happen on the diamond, though. It happened in the stands, in a recreational area along one of the foul lines. There, about 300 of Springfield’s most promising young minds were mingling. Sipping drinks, exchanging business cards, making connections.

It was the inaugural event of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce’s ambitious new project, called The Network — a new group for the town’s young professionals. Springfield’s business leaders had started to age — as had the population — and the Chamber wanted to find a way to replace both the impending leadership and workforce gaps in town. There was a shortage of Gen X and Gen Y professionals in Springfield who could step up to take key roles, and city leaders were worried.

There was never any doubt that the “brain drain” [1] was occurring in the area — and with potential young community leaders rapidly flowing to other markets, Springfield’s goals of improving diversity and revitalizing the downtown culture would be much more elusive.

Parker McKenna, 29, recalled what was happening at the time as “the obvious exodus of young professionals in [the] community.” McKenna is a lifelong Springfield native — he has been working in the city since he was 16 and was educated at Missouri State – but always thought he would leave.

“It was just kind of commonly accepted practice,” says McKenna. “You might grow up in this community, you might even go to school here, you might even go to college here, but you’re not going to stay here and work.”

Before he rose to be a key member of The Network — before it was even a concept — he says he got lucky. He was setting his sights on starting a life in another city when a job opportunity arose with the Springfield Public School District in 2005. It fit his education, it was secure and it was home – and eventually he ascended to his current position as director of human resources with the district.

“The Network eliminates that luck factor,” says McKenna. “If The Network had been around, I think it would’ve provided a clearer way, a clearer means, to plug into the community.”

One of the city’s newest features that members will be able to plug into is the Plaster Center for Free Enterprise and Business Development — which is expected to open in the coming months. It’s business havens such as this — as well as the Jordan Valley Center of Innovation — that foster a sense of business potential in the area.

The ambitious in Springfield aren’t living in a charming little community either — make no mistake about it, Springfield is a bona fide city. It’s muscular, and it falls into the ranks of large metropolitan areas nationwide. In 2010, Forbes listed it as the 42nd best place for business and careers.

But Springfield feels more like a small city in a larger body. It’s more comparable to a place like Columbia, Mo., a college town three hours to the north, than it is to a big metropolis like Kansas City.

Columbia, too, is trying to find a way to keep its recent college grads and young professionals from leaving. To fight the brain drain, Columbia has the Regional Economic Development, Inc., (REDI) which aims to advance economic expansion in Columbia and Boone County. By creating business incubators and offering grants for businesses, REDI hopes to keep recent grads from flocking to places like New York and San Francisco and Chicago and St. Louis. And it’s something that the rest of the nation has taken notice of. Going back to Forbes: Columbia falls at no. 8 among small cities to do business in.

But Springfield and Columbia aren’t quite the same.

Columbia also has a much larger population of college-educated citizens — more than one in two locals has a degree, according to Forbes. In Springfield, that number is about one in four. Columbia’s economy has always been based around its universities. Springfield is a place that’s been historically dominated by blue-collar work — a manufacturing presence anchored by companies like Solo Cup and Kraft — and the health care industry, which employs 20,000 locals and over 1,000 physicians in the area.

But what The Network’s created is a shift in how Springfield thinks about its economy. The group of young professionals represents a push toward an economy balanced by white-collar jobs and locally-owned business.

“We have seen a lot of growth in those numbers,” says Rayanna Anderson, the director of the small business and technology development center at Missouri State. “The economy has been pretty well diversified; we have great educational institutions … The area experienced a lot of growth because of the Branson explosion, and the combination of all those lean indicators have helped the area a lot.”

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Awards are handed out at The Network's Fifth Anniversary Party.
(At top) Hollie Elliott, left, and Kristen Westerman, the organizers behind The Network. (Above, photo courtesy The Network) Awards are handed out at The Network’s Fifth Anniversary Party.

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The Network holds formal events every month or so, where members will go into fierce networking mode. The dialogue built here — whether it’s about a prospective city council initiative or about the importance of supporting new ethnic restaurants in the downtown area — will spill over into a business and personal relationship between members. It’s in these relationships that the Chamber hopes to continue building a youthful foundation that won’t easily erode – and moreover will inspire young talent to put down more roots in the community.

That will make it harder on these prospects to leave – exactly what the Chamber leaders had in mind when they commissioned one of its youngest employees, Kristen Westerman, to develop a blueprint for The Network in April 2006.

“We were going to be competing with all of the other communities for that young talent,” says Westerman, now 32. “So we had to put our best foot forward and get people engaged in the community.”

Prior to launching the group, her year-long research [2] had revealed that young professional networks were popping up as Chamber arms across the country – and that they were the future of preserving the community’s young business talent. She formed an advisory board, received the chamber’s blessing and planned the first event at the minor league baseball game.

“Three hundred people showing up for the first event,” says Hollie Elliott, who serves as the Economic Development Coordinator at the Chamber. [3] “I think it was clear that the young professionals in the community were looking for something to be involved with.”

Making inroads to Springfield’s community development organizations — whether it is with city government, on boards of nonprofits or even in the raw creation of new groups — The Network doesn’t want to just get together and talk about ideas. The Chamber has created a new seat on the board reserved specifically for a representative from the group.

The city is also going through a new strategic planning process at the moment, which consists of 13 committees. The Network has muscled its way onto each of those committees, with at least one member holding a chair. The presence of the group in the distinct collections of Springfield voices — on committees ranging from the Arts, Culture and Tourism chapter to the Natural Environment board to the Public Health council — speaks to the new presence the group has established in the past five years. It speaks to its diversity.

The Network counts among its members a roster of lawyers, construction workers, bankers, and researchers. Three universities are represented. There are members from Big Whiskey’s Bar and Grill, BancorpSouth, Habitat for Humanity and the Springfield Symphony Association. Today the organization is holding at about 300 members strong.

There’s people like 29-year-old Teresa Coyan, a Physician Relations Manager at CoxHealth, who a few years ago graduated from Missouri State and wanted to leave Springfield and return to her hometown in St. Louis, or somewhere more inviting for young ambition. But she reluctantly stayed, and by 2008, she was already climbing the ladder at CoxHealth and had become an active member of The Network. That gave her the gumption to found a young professional network within CoxHealth — a sister group of sorts to the Chamber’s brainchild.

Then there is David Ross, a 31-year-old director of operations at the commercial construction company Morelock-Ross. He’s been a part of The Network since its inception — a young family man who was raised in Springfield, and now helps run his family’s business. He says there’s no reason to leave his hometown — just more reasons to stay.

“It’s kind of given us a bigger opportunity to be a part of Springfield and not just wait till you’re 45 or 50 years old,” Ross says. “[It’s] given our age group a voice at the table.”

Coyan, Ross and McKenna came together at Wellington Place just last week for the fifth-anniversary celebration of The Network. The setting was elegant, hip, progressive — young men in suits and women in spring dresses, laughing and head-nodding over gourmet food served on neat-white table clothes. Elliott called it the most significant moment in the organization’s history — getting to five years, with stability to spare, hasn’t been easy.

An acoustic guitarist played peaceful music for much of the evening, stopping when the Young Professional of the Year Award was announced.

It went to Coyan, and the two other candidates — Ross and McKenna — were lauded for their unceasing efforts to improve their hometown. Later, all three posed for a long photo session in the back corner of the Wellington ballroom, smiling ear-to-ear as they held their awards. Across the room, hundreds of people continued to celebrate, many of whom waited their turn to come up and congratulate Coyan, Ross and McKenna.

But it was bigger than them. It was a victory for The Network. It was a victory for Springfield.