IBJ: The Chamber and others have begun exploring ways to use the region’s vast water supply as a means of recruiting businesses. What’s the thought process behind that and how did it come about?
Johnson: We try to be very intentional about things. We’re always scanning the horizon for what’s next, what trends are out there and what the dynamics are in the national and international business community. But sometimes it’s easy to overlook the obvious. You’re seeing more and more businesses start to pay attention to the water supply. It makes sense for us to dig into this to determine if there is a competitive advantage that we need to be leveraging,
This is well beyond river shipping. We’re really talking about supply of fresh water. We’re still in the early phases of it. We’re not alone in this. Over the last couple of years, you’ve seen the Great Lakes states really starting to look at their abundant supply of fresh water as a competitive advantage, whether it’s recruiting or building expertise within your own community that leads to startup technologies.
IBJ: So other parts of the country are starting to catch on to this, too?
Johnson: Yeah, actually they’re a couple of years down the road already, if you want to know the truth. Milwaukee has what they call their Global Water Center, which is kind of like we are doing here in St. Louis with a financial technologies accelerator called SixThirty. It’s based on startup technologies having to do with water initiatives. We’re still on the learning curve on this, trying to understand it.
IBJ: Three years ago the St. Louis County Economic Council recommended that this region highlight its water resources to attract more food and processing companies. Has that recommendation gone anywhere?
Johnson: It is still out there. There are very active discussions going on about it, even as of yesterday. It’s very much alive and a lot of folks are taking a very hard look at it.
IBJ: How much do drought conditions factor in to the deliberations?
Johnson: It has to figure in. You read about plants expanding or where they are not — especially in food processing. If a company has three or four plants across the country and they need to increase capacity they are likely to not expand one in a water-restricted area. There are definite ramifications on where businesses will expand.
Another issue where water factors in, is businesses are becoming extremely serious about their sustainability footprint. You are not hearing stories of plants shutting down in California or Arizona because they don’t have water. But companies are really starting to pay attention to their profile as a business from a sustainability issue. I really think it will make them think twice before going into areas where there is almost water rationing. The sustainability issue and the corporate reputation — the corporate brand — I think will begin to figure into this equation in the future.
IBJ: What other industries would be a focus of this effort?
Johnson: It’s going to be food processing and some of the heavier processing industries. Obviously, we’re a big food processing center already. I think, because of the sustainability issues that are arising, this will factor in business decisions that go far beyond those who need millions of gallons of water. I think it will become a little more pervasive.
IBJ: The Chamber focuses on four core industry clusters, and water is not one of those. What are the four core ones?
Johnson: Financial services. Multimodal logistics, in which water figures in quite substantially, with river transport. Tagged on with multimodal logistics is advanced manufacturing, which all need water. The other two are bio sciences and the health economy.
IBJ: So water could become a fifth cluster to focus on?
Johnson: Yes, it would, and that’s why you don’t go into these decisions lightly because you dedicate a lot of resources and staff. There’s a lot of conversation going on right now about this.
IBJ: What is likely to happen next in studying the issue?
Johnson: A lot of conversation. Looking at data and national and international trends, looking to see where we fit in. Is it enough of a demonstrable advantage that we can build something around?
IBJ: Once you’ve figured out if it’s a good opportunity, you’ll figure out your next move after that? I guess marketing would be a big part of that?
Johnson: It would come to marketing, yes, but I don’t know if it reaches a point where you go put billboards in California, saying, “We’ve got water and you don’t.” ... It begins to be part of the regional assets that you take to the marketplace, where in the past you really didn’t. Water was kind of a foregone conclusion. It becomes part of what you’re promoting and selling about the region.
IBJ: Who are some of the main players in the conversations taking place in St. Louis?
Johnson: Basically the economic development community.
IBJ: If you were to look down the road two or three years, do you see this being a serious direction of recruitment efforts?
Johnson: I think it could be part of an initiative, an integral part of recruitment, marketing and positioning the region.
IBJ: Just like the resources in personnel, highway availability and those sorts of things?
Johnson: Exactly like that. When you talk about logistics, you talk about river, rail, highway and air. And for other industries water will increasingly become part of the asset base. It’s something we’ve taken for granted forever, but it might be that businesses are no longer taking it for granted.