Carolyn Chrisman: Supporting Missouri Communities

Carolyn Chrisman, an economic development practitioner, has more than a decade of experience in economic development in rural areas focusing on workforce development, business development strategies, innovation, emerging areas, and more to grow the local economy. Having worked on projects of numerous sizes and industries in the past ten years, Carolyn has a host of impressive achievements under her belt. These include a $250M business retention and expansion project for a food processor that expanded a facility by 260,000 square feet, retained 500 jobs, and added 500 new jobs.

In the past decade, Carolyn’s work and community support, have resulted in projects such as the Kraft Heinz expansion project, the High Prairie Wind Farm project (the largest in the state), and the Cooperative Call Center project.

Carolyn has had an interesting trajectory- from a schoolteacher to a city councilwoman to the Executive Director of Kirksville Regional Economic Development, Inc, which has been in business for 30 years, Missouri Rural Enterprise and Innovation Center, in business since 2008. Both outfits are in Kirksville, Missouri. The former covers Adair County while the latter covers 16 counties in Northeast Missouri. She is also the Center Director for the Kirksville Small Business Development Center.

In a candid interview with Aspioneer, Carolyn talks about the factors that shaped her career; the work through which she contributed to the community by introducing change and innovation leading to newer jobs and sustainability, and how she raised her four children while also juggling a demanding work schedule.

Aspioneer (A): Please give us a brief understanding of the scope of work of Kirksville Regional Economic Development, Inc (KREDI) and Missouri Rural Enterprise and Innovation Center

Carolyn Chrisman (CC): Both organizations work in the economic development space and are 501(c)(3) organizations. K-REDI’s mission is to serve as an economic competitor providing family-supporting jobs to the Kirksville region.

I spend most of my time in K-REDI, a high-performing organization, which is a public-private partnership that receives public as well as private business funding. Our vision is to provide family-supporting jobs to the Kirksville region through business retention and expansion and workforce development in the agriculture, manufacturing, technology, and healthcare sectors. K-REDI is the only public/private partnership for economic development that focuses on growing and diversifying Adair County’s economy. Through K-REDI, I have worked to make a difference to better our community and to help communities attract new businesses, facilitate enterprise development, and assist existing businesses with expansion and troubleshooting.

K-REDI is unique in many ways. We anticipate the challenges and opportunities on the horizon, develop programs around them, and rally the support of others in our industry. For example, noting the lack of regional leadership in our area, I joined forces with other economic development professionals and started a Leadership Northeast program which gives a regional perspective on important issues that affect us all. K-REDI’s initiatives include workforce training and support, community education and communication, and state law policy changes. New and emerging issues include renewable energy, broadband, workforce issues such as affordable housing and childcare, and diversity, equity, and inclusion programs.

Carolyn Chrisman

A: Are there any workforce needs that you are especially invested in?

CC: We work on identifying problems in labor force participation and reaching solutions to address barriers to employment, like daycare, childcare, education, and housing.

My community was studying the childcare issue and surveying businesses and employees before COVID to address the demand of the local companies for a community solution to childcare. To provide a community-based solution, we are studying ways to deploy additional childcare spots to help parents to maintain employment. I have also taken this issue to a regional, and state level. The state, communities, and other entities connect with us regularly to access our processes and documents to start their own community assistance to childcare.

The other workforce issue is housing. We have worked with multiple entities to conduct studies on the supply side of housing (with a housing study) and the demand side to understand what the existing employees, who want to buy or build, can afford. We are working on solutions and advocating at the state level for funds to assist communities to increase workforce housing. We become the local, regional, and state experts on the topic, which rallies and galvanizes other entities to join the conversation and advocacy.

A: Please describe your journey from a schoolteacher to the leadership role that you hold today.

CC: As a young child when I had teachers, family, and adults tell me that I could do anything I wanted to do in life. I believed them and applied myself to the tasks I wanted to accomplish.

I wanted to be a lawyer from the age of 8. But in college, I decided that political science and education were more my forte. I came out of college and went into the classroom, teaching Middle School students Social Studies. While trying to teach the students the importance that Constitution, history, and government had in their lives, I utilized the method of “Edutainment” (my own term) through which I tried to educate in an entertaining and fun way.

While a teacher, I was on the city Planning and Zoning commission. I learned about codes, zoning - such as M1-M2, residential, commercial, and planned zones- and the process of rezoning. Thereafter, I ran for City Council and won a seat at age 26, becoming the youngest city councilwoman. In this role, I gained an understanding of local government, local businesses, and serving the public as an elected official. When the first full-time director retired, I applied for the open position of Executive Director, and for the past 11-plus years, I have been serving in this capacity.

"I am focused on making myself a better leader and helping others to become leaders."

A: What are some of the highlights of your career?

CC: I continued to obtain further education, including a Doctorate in Educational Leadership, Missouri Certified Economic Developer, and Economic Development Finance Professional. I continue to learn and grow to become a best-practice practitioner. Other leadership experiences I have pursued include the Greater Missouri Leadership Challenge and Agriculture Leaders of Tomorrow. This has increased my network across industries and the state of Missouri.

Among my career highlights is being named the Missouri Economic Developer of the Year in 2019 for my work in changing state legislation that would benefit every region of the state that has wind energy generation. Without my action, many communities in the state would have lost out on property tax revenue. Another was being named Top 50 Missourians You Should Know by Ingram’s magazine in Kansas City.

A: How did you manage your family commitments and a demanding career?

CC: My motto was, “Have child; will travel” I had four children in six years. I took my kids with me when I traveled so that I did not have to choose work over family. A family member always came with us to help. Sometimes, I also brought my child to work. Everyone loved it and complimented me on the way I was bringing up my kids. Some women even wished they had done it the generation ahead of me. My children are older and don’t travel with me any longer, but my colleagues still ask about them.

A: There must have been some challenging situations at work, how do you tackle them?

CC: One extremely challenging situation was when our largest private manufacturer announced the moving of an entire line of products to a different state, which entailed losing 2/3 of our workers. It was a rough time for the employees of the facility because it was right before the holidays in November. A few members of the local city council even called for my termination because of the situation.

However, we turned that situation into the largest expansion and capital investment our community has ever seen. It went from a 180,000-square-foot facility to a 450,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility and doubled the size of the workforce.

A: How do you see yourself as a leader?

CC: I take a servant-leader approach. My job is to get up every day and to work to better the economy and community so that all can experience a better life. I am focused on making myself a better leader and helping others to become leaders. My message to other leaders is never to rest on your laurels when you think you have succeeded. There is always more work to be done in economic development. Also, do not think “this isn’t part of my job”. I heard that more than a decade ago when it came to workforce development being an economic developer’s job, and here today, childcare and housing are part of our jobs.