After learning by phone last summer of 1 Vision Aviation’s expansion plans to Salina, Mitch Robinson may have uttered a ceremonial “yippee” in his downtown office.
He’s not sure.
Weeks later, when Jimmy Sponder — owner, president and CEO of the Sioux City, Iowa-based aircraft maintenance repair and overhaul company — made it official with a signed contract, principal figures in the Salina recruiting effort celebrated with some handshakes and high fives.
But there was no chest beating, or cartwheels from Robinson, executive director of the Salina Community Economic Development Organization.
The Kentucky native played a major role in bringing new jobs and payroll — to the Big Bertha hangar at the Salina Regional Airport and Industrial Center.
The subdued response from Robinson (58 at the time) was by design, and he admits to being a bit long in the tooth for cartwheels.
Snaring the spotlight is just not his style.
“It was definitely a feeling of satisfaction,” Robinson said, immediately shoveling credit to the rest of the community team.
“You can’t be in this business and not be excited when you bag one,” he said. “There was some relief as well.”
Economic development is “a long process,” Robinson said, and essential these days.
Roughly three years since taking the EDO reigns in Salina, he is enjoying middle America with wife Debbi (senior recruiter with Schwan’s) and family, and is excited to welcome more projects to the community.
Locals were impressed with the addition of LifeSave Transport, air ambulance service, and 1 Vision to the airport industrial center neighborhood this past fall.
The new tenants have piqued interested in other development opportunities, said Tim Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority.
“Those projects have built momentum, and have re-energized workforce recruitment, training, and retention efforts,” he said.
Hired in December 2016, Robinson “has become and effective representative of the community and a big contributor to economic development,” Rogers said. “Mitch has my trust and confidence to handle all the details from the simplest to more complex project. He has definitely earned his spurs.”
Robinson represents the community on a state and national level. He was just elected second vice president of the Kansas Economic Development Alliance.
Eco deco, as it’s referred to in short, is not an exact science, Rogers said. “The time and effort is what is hard for folks to realize.”
Ditto that, said Kent Buer, president and CEO of First Bank Kansas, and chairman of the Salina Airport Authority board.
“There has always been criticisms with economic development in Salina. A lot of people don’t know what goes on behind the scenes,” he said. “Mitch is not a cheerleader. He has been an asset to this community.”
Robinson is a professional and economic development veteran, Buer said.
“He knows how to go about it, who to contact, and what resources are available from a regional and a state level,” the banker said. “He’s ran with some things that our other entities didn’t have time to run with, or it wasn’t in their wheelhouse.”
The economic development team is working hard, said Bob Vidricksen, chairman of the Saline County commission.
“The perception is the organization isn’t doing much, but they are doing a lot, dealing with a lot of people,” he said. “All of a sudden, it happens, and boom, it’s ‘Great job Mitch.’”
Workers are often told “to work visibly and let your bosses see what you’re doing,” Vidricksen said, but that can’t always happen in the economic development process.
“They can’t reveal what’s going on until the hammer drops,” he said.
Another trait of this EDO leader is being “a really good team player,” Buer said. “Mitch is a professional. He’s not flashy, and I don’t think we need flashy, not in our community. We just want results.”
That happened in bunches this past fall.
Sponder of 1Vision has praise for Robinson and Salina. After a few months of pondering an expansion, the company opened for business in early September, starting with 50 employees. Today’s roster contains over 80 names, and is still on track to grow and attract business, reaching the 450-employee goal by 2023.
“Everybody involved was working hard to get me here, so that impressed me a whole lot,” Sponder said. “They were always asking what they needed to do to help me come this direction, and without even asking they took it upon themselves to figure out how the hangar needed to be upgraded. It made me want to come here even more.”
Robinson and the EDO, Salina Area Chamber of Commerce, airport authority, city, county, business community and other Salina/Saline County groups, promised, then delivered.
Now, 1 Vision’s business in Big Bertha is “booming,” Sponder said, with eight regional jets in the hangar for scheduled maintenance repairs and overhaul.
“There are no regrets,” Sponder said. “It continues to grow.”
Having a company repairing aircraft just walking distance from Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus, helps in more than one way, said Andrew Smith, professor and co-coordinator of the school’s aviation maintenance management program.
Enrollment is growing, and several of K-State Poly students work at 1 Vision Aviation part-time.
“It helps solidify their education with hands-on, real-world experience,” Smith said. “I think we’ll see continued growth. It’s a good relationship for us.”
The 1 Vision recruitment story is worth recalling. It began with a phone call, but the real process started when Sponder paid Salina and the airport industrial center a visit.
“Tim (Rogers) and I went over and showed Jimmy and his team —six of them— toured the hangar. They all flew in,” Robinson said. “That’s game time. There has got to be answers to all the questions. You’re amped up. It’s like playing in the Super Bowl.”
The group toured Big Bertha, reviewed information and then gathered at a Salina restaurant.
“Everybody sat in a circle. That was the first time we realized that Jimmy brought two of his bankers with him. He was serious, and Big Bertha was interesting to him,” Robinson said. “After that, we spent several weeks providing additional information.”
In relation to other projects that can take years, he said, the 1 Vision deal came to fruition rather quickly.
“When we got word that Tim had a signed lease in hand, that’s when the celebrations began,” Robinson said.
Others weighed in on Robinson and the recent economic development success:
I have worked with Mitch as he has recruited prospects or responded to requests for proposals from prospects, their consultants or the State of Kansas, and he is very good at what he does,” wrote Mike Schrage, Salina city manager in a written statement.
“He understands the ins and outs of the economic development process as well as the various decision factors related to site selection and project development and he does a terrific job of seamlessly working with countless parties to put the best foot forward for our community,” Schrage said.
“Mitch brings years of experience in working with prospective companies looking to expand to the Midwest. He has made a career of helping small markets attract good solid companies that provide security, good wages and benefits to our community,” wrote John Gunn, EDO board president. “Mitch has a great work ethic and has an easy going, likable personality.”
He pointed to the teamwork of Robinson and Robin VanAtta, EDO administrative assistant, “Mitch and Robin respond to all type of requests, big and small. One day it is working on a 1 Vision, 400- plus job opportunity and the next it is trying to find funding for a startup,” Gunn wrote. “We are lucky to have found someone with the experience and personality of Mitch Robinson.”
EDO efforts have been “positive” since Robinson arrived, while the organization was starting “from the ground up,” and building viability, wrote Eric Brown, chamber president and CEO.
“The learning curve can be steep and establishing yourself with the community can be daunting,” the statement reads. “Economic development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes partnerships across the community to recruit and retain businesses, and Mitch has done a great job of making himself available, and making connections that will allow his organization to flourish.”
Having a strong economy and gross domestic product historically translates to profitability in the business sector, Brown added.
“In terms of economic development, companies at that time place greater value on investing in their growth,” he wrote. “That is where the SCEDO has also done very well in understanding both those growth patterns and targeting those companies and industries that Salina would be a tremendous match for, based on our assets.”
Robinson is always aimed at filling needs and sparking growth.
“Everybody understands the importance of having good quality jobs for the community,” he said. “They generate sales of new cars, groceries, people being able to buy their first home or pay their rent. I totally get it.”
“But on the other side we’re in a very competitive environment with 3 percent unemployment and less than 2 percent in some small counties, which is basically full employment.”
Early in the EDO’s fourth year, the team is celebrating the development of relationships, Robinson said, connecting with “people in Topeka, Kansas City, utility companies, people outside of our day-to-day operation that we work with very closely to get projects completed, as well as developing new leads,” he said. “I like working with good people, and there hasn’t been anybody I’ve worked with from a company standpoint that I wouldn’t mind having in my house, sharing the evening with.”
And that especially includes the local team that is making things happen in Salina and Saline County, he said, mentioning so many.
“It’s not just me,” Robinson said. “Everybody has a role to play. There’s no way around that.”
Once again, he can’t provide details, but Robinson and others sense there is momentum in Salina and Saline County’s favor. Other projects are in the works.
“You can get on a roll of positive things sometimes,” he said. “A lot of that is from people saying ‘Something’s going on in that community. Things are happening, and we need to be looking at Salina.’ We feel like there are many positive things going on with the downtown, and the recent improvements made within the school district is another critical upgrade made within the community.”
It might just entice local college graduates to take a look back home. They’re often called “boomerangers.”
“It’s a morale issue,” Robinson said. “People can definitely feel good or feel bad about their community, based on things going on, and I think, overall, there are a lot of positive things going on that help promote good will.”
Others are first timers, such as Jim Sponder of 1 Vision, who liked Salina so much that he relocated his family here.
Current prospects “are well outside the normal information flow,” he added. “They’re not reading the local newspaper, but through online activity, people know more about you now than they did before.”
Towns and regions may pursue economic development in different ways, such as creating focus groups, raising money and offering incentives. Robinson mentioned Topeka and Tulsa, Okla., offering bonuses for people to move there.
What about Salina?
“I’ll never say never, but at this point, we haven’t gone that direction,” he said. “But relocation efforts that the chamber is doing through their Image Salina campaign is making it easier to find out about new employment opportunities.”
The EDO is pushing to spread the news to younger persons through social media, mentioning that assistant Robin VanAtta, “is very adept at that.”
Companies have the ability to locate manufacturing plants wherever they want, and “communities are willing to give land, utilities and other amenities.
Robinson feels a trend for this state.
“They’re coming to Kansas for a reason. Maybe it’s raw materials or distribution purposes,” he said. “Maybe their family is from Kansas. Maybe they want to buy power that is wind generated."
“Look at transportation. We’re sitting on two interstates, with rail and aviation improvements. It’s a huge difference.”
While Salina is on the cusp of achieving metropolitan status (reaching 50,000 population), Robinson added that “not everybody wants to be in a big city, whether it’s Wichita, Dallas, Oklahoma City; we’ve got a lot of things to offer.”
The EDO aims at pursuing projects that meld with niches here, among them aviation and a runway more than two miles long, and unmanned aerial systems.
“We’ve got one out the best schools in the country (K-State Poly), probably in the world, working on that, making policy recommendations with the state and nation,” Robinson said. “And agriculture still pays the bills.”
Activity is very strong right now, he said, and that’s a good thing.
“The rest of the world is catching on,” Robinson said. “We’ve got some very good projects.”