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Muskogee firms investing millions, creating jobs

Muskogee Phoenix
February 08, 2018
Mike Elswick | Phoenix Staff Writer

Existing Muskogee industrial companies are finding the area bullish on business.

Port of Muskogee's Economic Development Director Marie Synar said local manufacturers have invested heavily to back up that assumption in big ways. While landing a new Amazon distribution center, a new car manufacturing plant or other high-profile companies for expansion may gain headlines and media sound bytes, she said the nuts and bolts of economic development is in cultivating existing firms and helping them grow, invest and create new jobs locally.

"We work closely with the local manufacturing community," she said. "One of the most important things we do is work with existing business. We need to take care of them and convince them to grow here."

The economic development office serves as a liaison between companies and the city as far as permitting and taking advantage of grant and incentive opportunities, she said. With about 65 to 70 manufacturing firms in Muskogee, Synar said the city is already a manufacturing hub.

"It's much easier for us to work with our existing manufacturers in expanding," she said. "Last year we did 32 expansion projects, so about half of our manufacturers are expanding. It just amazes me what our companies in Muskogee are doing."

In 2017, there were three local firms that announced new major expansion projects.

"Those three manufacturers alone are going to create 178 new jobs at an average salary of $54,000 a year," Synar said. "Last year alone we had 16 companies that completed their expansion projects. They added 50 jobs and $206 million in new investment."

Among the biggest challenges in getting outside prospective business leaders, industrial site consultants and economic development recruiters to pay attention to Muskogee is educating people in the field that the city, located in the nation's midsection, has a port.

Synar said the Port of Muskogee represents the city and county jointly in economic development efforts. She has been associated in the Muskogee economic development field for about 11 years and has served as director since this past April. She recently addressed the Muskogee Hotel and Lodging Association members on economic development.

"I still find myself having to explain to people in Oklahoma that Muskogee has a port," Synar said. "So you can imagine the challenge when we go out nationally and internationally in trying to explain that."

Muskogee's port is one of three handling barge traffic in Oklahoma and is one of only two public ports, she said.

"We're the furtherest inland ice-free, all-weather port west of the Mississippi," Synar said. "So for companies that need to ship large quantities of materials, we're ideal. We just need to educate them that we're here and we're ready for business."

Muskogee's proximity to major highways and easy access to air travel are other selling points used in promoting Muskogee as a site for new or expanding plants.

"We have over 2,500 acres of industrial property available here in Muskogee," she said.

Synar said her office has three main focuses.

"The three main things we do are business attraction, recruiting new companies to Muskogee; business expansion and retention, working with our existing companies to make sure there is an environment here that allows them to continue to grow and add more jobs," Synar said.

And one of the relatively newer areas added to the office's responsibility is workforce development.

"We've just dedicated a full-time staff person to workforce development," she said. "And that is so important."

She said the economic development field is highly competitive.

"There are about 15,000 communities and economic development organizations in the country," Synar said.

One aspect of her job that not a lot of the public understands is how competitive the field is.

"It's not like retail, which goes by head count and population," she said. "If you have the population and you have the income and they don't have a store within 30 miles, they'll probably come."

With industrial development, firms can basically locate a facility about anywhere, depending upon the logistics being sought, she said.

"For industrial development, with those 15,000 communities competing, there are only about 200 businesses looking to relocate or start up a new operation," she said. "That shows why it is so important for us to get out there and sell Muskogee."

The area of industrial recruitment takes up about 30 percent of her office's staff time.

"How we do that, number one, is that we work with our Oklahoma Department of Commerce," Synar said.

The department is the port authority's counterpart at the state level.

The state commerce department will often get leads from companies starting a broad-scale search for new business expansion facilities.

"Those companies aren't going to contact 15,000 communities," she said.

The company's site selection officials will provide the state with a set of criteria the company wants a prospective site to meet.

It may be something like they need their site to be within 10 miles of a major highway or 40 miles of a port and they need at least 60 acres of land and need an available workforce so they can hire 200 workers, with perhaps 40 of those being welders, she said.

"The Department of Commerce gets that information and disseminates it throughout Oklahoma," Synar said. "Then it's up to us to put proposals together, and that's what we spend a lot of our time doing, putting those proposals together."

In addition, Synar said the port's economic development arm hosts or participates in a number of receptions and networking events. In one of those events in January, Muskogee officials and Gov. Mary Fallin met with about 75 site selection consultants, she said.

Reach Mike Elswick at (918) 684-2954, @melswickMPhx or melswick@muskogeephoenix.com.

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The Muskogee Business Development office is located at 216 West Okmulgee in downtown Muskogee, Oklahoma.