Creating a strategic plan for economic growth can be done in many ways. Some communities aim for growth of any kind. Others simply try to keep up with growth as it happens. But Lawton-Fort Sill, Oklahoma, is a city with a long and distinguished military history, and that means strategy and self-determination are part of its DNA. Growth is already happening in Lawton, and that’s exactly why community leaders decided it was time to take the reigns. The new Lawton-Fort Sill Economic Development Corporation is leading the charge.
Growth for Good
Lawton isn’t new to economic development. As Oklahoma's third-largest Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) with a population of more than 200,000, Lawton is one of Oklahoma’s prominent shopping, medical, recreational, education and religious centers. It serves as a hub for the area's cattle, dairy and agricultural industries and the home of manufacturing and processing companies, including one of Goodyear’s largest and most advanced manufacturing facilities, as well as a number of high-tech, defense and aerospace companies.
The plan in Lawton, however, is not simply to grow, but to grow intelligently. In launching the Lawton-Fort Sill Economic Development Corporation, Lawton’s leaders plan to bring all decision makers to the table to harness the area’s resources and create sustainable, strong growth.
“We aren’t interested in a growth-at-any-cost kind of plan,” says Barry Albrecht, the newly named president of the Lawton-Fort Sill Economic Development Corporation. “We’re creating good quality growth within a long-term plan.”
Quality is a central theme of the Lawton plan, and Albrecht and his team are focusing their efforts on attracting ideal businesses and industries by creating a custom incentive program that addresses each company’s individual needs.
“The state of Oklahoma and our local entities have created some of the most advanced and meaningful incentive programs in the country today,” says Albrecht. “Instead of a cookie-cutter incentive approach, these incentives offer value in key areas that reflect the needs of the industries we want to foster in our community, needs such as tax reductions, tax credits on land acquisitions, customized build-to-suit opportunities and incentive lease programs where the lease is dynamically reduced for a long-term commitment in exchange for providing a certain level of job creation.”
The Future of Oklahoma Industry
Lawton is strategically located within an hour or less of three major military installations, a fact that has shaped the area’s business growth significantly. Atlus Air Force Base sits west of Lawton, while Sheppard Air Force Base is south. Fort Sill, northwest of downtown Lawton, is the historical anchor of the area and continues to be a major influence on life and business in the community. Today, Fort Sill is one of the largest employers in southwest Oklahoma, providing the area with a total workforce of 7,400 citizens and 9,300 active-duty soldiers, along with thousands of students who rotate through the base annually for training.
Nestled amongst these major military hubs, Lawton developed a strong military character, a factor that, according to Albrecht, offers benefits for the community as well as the businesses that call it home.
“One of our primary industries is workforce development. The military is a powerful workforce development entity, just as much as a university,” says Albrecht. “Also, a strong work ethic is one of the characteristics companies desperately need, and the military provides that. It’s an inherent part of the military training.”
Lawton clearly has a generous share of military resources and influence, but higher education is also a major part of the community’s business appeal. Lawton is home to a number of educational entities, including universities, satellite campuses and training centers.
The largest four-year higher education institution in southwest Oklahoma, Cameron University, averaging 6,000 students, is a 100 year-old higher education institution under the University of Oklahoma Board of Regents. The university offers more than 50 degrees through two-year, four-year and graduate programs and maintains a unique commitment to student preparation. In a new 2012 initiative called the Cameron University Guarantee, if a Cameron graduate enters the workplace in his or her field of study and an employer determines the graduate is lacking a basic skill relevant to his or her position, Cameron will provide additional training at no cost to the student or employee.
Businesses and citizens of Lawton also have easy access to a number of other educational opportunities, including Columbia College, Great Plains Technology Center, Platt College, The University of Oklahoma and Webster University at Fort Sill.
With the combined educational forces of the military and Lawton’s many colleges, university and training centers, the area has developed a highly capable workforce that has attracted a variety of industries, including the defense industry, health care, research and development, and food processing. And they’re just getting started.
“Oklahoma has established itself as a true leader in aerospace and defense and with the existing assets we can build on that industry base,” says Albrecht. “Oklahoma is committed to establish the state as a national leader in the research, development, test, evaluation and commercialization of unmanned systems and related technology.”
The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry is another target market. As a recent NPR article on the subject pointed out, technological advances often begin with government research, and UAVs are the newest example. A concentration of UAV-related high-tech companies is already hard at work in Oklahoma, developing not just the UAVs, but also working in ancillary areas such as software and programming.
Oklahoma makes an ideal site for UAV testing because it is home to the Clinton-Sherman Industrial Airpark, also known as the Oklahoma Spaceport, which occupies a former Air Force base, with a 13,000-foot runway. Currently, since the FAA does not permit UAS operations in the National Airspace by exception only, authorization to operate UASs in Restricted Airspace is a key to development and testing.
Fort Sill has authorized an Oklahoma State Agency authorization to fly UASs in its 1,600 cubic miles of Restricted Airspace. This access to restricted airspace, at any time and for any state-sponsored customer (as long as there is a military purpose or linkage) places Oklahoma’s UAS operations at the forefront of aerospace R&D, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) in the United States. This RDT&E advantage has brought national attention to Oklahoma’s UAS ambitions and capabilities.
Lawton also has remarkable cooperation among academics, businesses and the government, which has allowed a unique agreement that gives researchers access to the restricted airspace.
Seeing the technology’s potential for accomplishing a wide range of difficult jobs, such as crop spraying and pipeline inspections, Governor Mary Fallin recently formed a council to promote Oklahoma as the best site for companies to build unmanned aerial systems for military, civil and commercial use.
A Cooperative Approach
Lawton’s low cost of living, low unemployment and central location are all a major benefits, but what really sets this area apart is the deliberately cooperative approach the city and state have taken to economic development.
“It is truly a breath of fresh air to see a governor truly committed to job creation,” says Albrecht. “I have seen the state legislators working together cooperatively for the best interest of job creation in the state of Oklahoma.”
That spirit of cooperation is alive in Lawton, and that’s where the Lawton-Fort Sill Economic Development Corporation comes in.
Formed from the economic development arm of the Lawton-Fort Sill Chamber, the Corporation is still fully owned by the Chamber, but operates with its own mission and board of directors. The restructuring involved a national search for the ideal candidate to lead the Corporation, resulting in the hire of Albrecht as president. An 18-year economic development professional with a strong defense industry and traditional economic development background, Albrecht also has extensive experience working with high-tech and defense companies including TRW, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, ISIS Corp., Lockheed Martin and unmanned aerial vehicle programs.
A former rotor wing-fixed wing aviator in the Military Intelligence Corps, Albrecht leads with the exact qualities he sees in his new home: work ethic, strategic vision and teamwork. That’s the Lawton way, and the way to a successful future.