The recession was particularly unkind to Wichita Falls, Texas. Beginning in December 2008, when building-materials manufacturer Saint-Gobain Corp. shuttered its local factory and eliminated 750 jobs, a slew of plant closures and layoffs hit the city so hard that its unemployment rate shot up 60%.
So when local economic development officials found out that Carrier Corp. wanted to sell off a local air-conditioner manufacturer that it had acquired a decade earlier -- Magic Aire -- they feared the worst.
"When our future is left at the hands of folks who don't live here and they're making decisions, sometimes those decisions are advantageous to us, but many times they're not," says Tim Chase, president and CEO of the Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which handles economic development efforts for the city.
The story of Magic Aire has a happy ending, though, thanks to a creative financing approach that the chamber devised during the dark days of the recession.
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"We looked at every one of the incentives that we offered and we pushed them to the front of the timing chart."
Enter the Wichita Falls chamber, which bridged the financing gap by providing a 20-year, no-interest loan of $1 million to the group.
With sufficient funding in place, the management team made a bid on Magic Aire, and Carrier ultimately accepted it. The sale was finalized in July 2010 -- keeping Magic Aire and its 100 employees in Wichita Falls, where the company was founded in 1932.
The chamber "was critical in supporting us and encouraging us and closing the gap that we had," says Magic Aire President and CEO Ron Duncan, who was part of the buyout group. "Otherwise, it would not have been possible for us to even tender an offer."
In the late 1990s, the people of Wichita Falls voted for a sales-tax increase -- what's known in Texas as a 4A sales tax -- to fund job-creation efforts. Up until the last few years, the chamber had been using the funds to reward companies for creating jobs or making capital investments in Wichita Falls, and had been disbursing the funds on a pay-for-performance basis -- typically six to 12 months after the companies delivered on what they promised.
When the recession hit, though, community leaders took a hard look at the best way to use the funds, which had grown to $26 million, Chase estimates. They came to the realization that companies place a higher value on incentives that produce results upfront -- or within the first three years.
"So we looked at every one of the incentives that we offered and we pushed them to the front of the timing chart," Chase says.
The city decided to offer interest-free loans to tantalize companies to make capital investments or create jobs in Wichita Falls. As long as the companies deliver on what they promise, annual repayments on the loans -- which range from seven- to 20-year terms -- are discounted or waived altogether. (In the case of Magic Aire, loan repayments will be waived.)
Over the past two years, the shift to a pay-for-potential incentive model has helped Wichita Falls secure economic development projects that promise to create or retain 2,300 jobs, Chase says.
That includes 125 jobs that are expected to be created by Excalibur Paint & Coatings, an environmentally friendly coating manufacturer that secured $1.5 million in funding from the city to grow its business.
Chase believes the new financing tool, coupled with a redoubling of the chamber's marketing efforts, will help Wichita Falls build on its core strengths: cheap electricity, plentiful natural gas, an abundant water supply and "a workforce that understands a three-shift-a-day work environment."
Those assets should make Wichita Falls a sweet spot for large process manufacturers, particularly in the food and beverage sector, Chase says.
Even though the city is chipping away at the losses of the recession, local officials admit a turnaround in employment is in its infancy.
"It's very fragile, and we're certainly approaching this as we still need to be as aggressive as we can to provide good-paying jobs for our citizens," Chase says.