ENID, Okla. — Members of Enid Regional Development Alliance gathered together in person for the first time since January 2020 for the organization’s annual meeting.

Lisa Powell, ERDA executive director, said it was good to see everyone’s faces in person and that the in-person meeting brought a sense of normalcy and a routine.

“I think that’s been the hardest thing about the past year, is just that nothing has been routine,” Powell said. “Everything just couldn’t be done the way it was done before. We can start being so much more productive if we can just get into a routine again.”

Luke Holland, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, was the surprise guest speaker at the meeting, with Brent Kisling, executive director of Oklahoma Department of Commerce (DOC) and former ERDA executive director, as the keynote speaker.

‘Blank canvas out there that we can paint on’

Kisling was ERDA executive director for 10 years before he left in January 2019 to join DOC, but he said even after two years, his “heart is truly in Enid.”

In his speech, which Kisling was able to make a “little bit more personal,” he praised Enid leadership and how Enid and the state of Oklahoma made decisions that impacted the economic numbers now.

“The people that really contributed to making great things happen here in this community — we don’t have that everywhere across the state of Oklahoma,” Kisling said.

Kisling said the first step in growing an economy is to have a brand, which he said Enid does with the city’s logo and signage in the community.

Kisling said other things needed for diversifying and strengthening an economy are to have targeted recruitment, strong workforce programs and a culture of innovation, and lastly and most importantly, every community has to be “aggressively trying to grow.”

When his son graduated from college last May, Kisling’s family had a small family gathering to celebrate, and they had a ceremony where they walked him and his plate from the kids table to the adult table, which he compared with businesses in the past year.

“That really, that was our focus as a state during the pandemic — is we wanted to make sure business had a seat at the table,” Kisling said. “That has been our message that we’ve been sharing outside of the state of Oklahoma, and it is a message that is resonating.”

During the pandemic, DOC created a directory that identified manufacturers in the state who were making personal protective equipment so the State Health Department could purchase them immediately.

It grew for other businesses to utilize, and Kisling said DOC has kept it going, launching the Supply Chain Oklahoma initiative on Monday with the first key piece being “Connex Oklahoma,” a database tool developed by Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance that allows Oklahoma manufacturers to “connect, find alternate suppliers, explore production capabilities and view supply chains visually,” according to DOC.

“We thought, ‘After the pandemic, why can’t we keep this going? And why can’t we do with other industries?’” Kisling said. “If you’re in the aerospace industry and trying to buy a widget that you can buy out of China, let’s see if we can buy it out of Durant, buy it out of Enid or buy it out of Tulsa.”

Kisling said Oklahoma is the third state to utilize an initiative like this, and Powell said it will be “exciting” to see how that will develop new relationships and connections, and will help smaller manufacturers grow.

To see what the health of the state looks like, Kisling said DOC looks at three numbers: the unemployment rate, which is at 4.3% in the state; state gross domestic product, which is at 97% of where the state was pre-COVID-19; and total retails sales in the state, which increased by 9.7% from February 2020 to February 2021.

Legislatively, Kisling said Oklahoma has had to play defense on economic-related issues for decades on things dealing with taxes and regulation, but decided last year to go on “full-blown offense” with 44 different business incentives that have been administered at DOC, putting them into three buckets: jobs, investment and development.

Kisling said 23 request bills have gone to the Legislature, something DOC hasn’t seen before, with 20 of those 23 continuing to go through the process and “making it out of their chamber of origin,” which Kisling said will make it easy for businesses to access programs.

Three industries are growing in Oklahoma: automotive, meat-processing and film, Kisling said.

Eight to 10 production studios are in the process of moving from California to Oklahoma, which will create “permanent jobs,” Kisling said. During the pandemic, filming was restricted heavily, and Kisling said Oklahoma was the only state that didn’t entirely shut down, so 38 films were shot in the state, Kisling said.

All three of these industries, Kisling said, can grow because companies that are headquartered in other states are starting to relocate or build businesses in the state.

“The numbers will always work better here than other parts, and there’s a blank canvas out there that we can paint on right now,” Kisling said. “We just have to be able to tell our story.”

ERDA operations during pandemic

Powell said it has been a year of “slowing down” because of a lack of customers and a short supply of raw materials, but it also was a year of “speeding up” because ERDA had to reinvent how it did everything.

Some of the things ERDA did were find new ways to connect with customers, develop online sales, marketing and delivery platforms, identify new suppliers and work from home instead of in the office.

A year ago, information was coming out rapidly about resources for businesses during the pandemic, Powell said, so ERDA sent out newsletters weekly to answer questions and keep everyone up-to-date on stimulus dollars and solutions for online sales.

Powell said ERDA instituted a weekly Zoom call for small businesses, which was popular and became a resource for businesses across the state, including places in Oklahoma City and Stillwater, because the information was beneficial.

“Our goal during that time, obviously, was just to understand the needs of our businesses, to keep everybody informed and to keep our lines of communication open so that we can share the strategies and resources and funding opportunities to support our businesses through that time,” Powell said.

By working with ERDA’s state and federal partners over the past year, Powell said her team has been able to secure $3,742,661 to support 196 small businesses in Enid, a “remarkable” number.

The “lion’s share” of that money, $2,819,661, came as CARES funds through the Department of Commerce thanks to the “innovative programs” led by Kisling, who Powell said is the first director she can remember who is an expert in economic development, particularly at the local level “where economic development happens.”

“We, in the economic development world and business world across the state … can all agree that Gov. (Kevin) Stitt made an excellent choice when he chose (Kisling) to lead the State Department of Commerce,” Powell said.

Article by: Kelci McKendrick – Enid News & Eagle 4.8.21

Photo by: Billy Hefton