Sometimes, one small thing can lead to big changes.
That’s how Missy Bonnot wound up at the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce 16 years ago, taking on the position of director of economic development.
But she has now stepped in as the interim president and CEO, taking over after Randy Allen retired, which was effective June 30, while the chamber board searches for a permanent replacement. The current plan is for Bonnot to be in the interim position until the end of the year, with the goal of having a permanent replacement ready for 2021. And though it’s only interim, Bonnot is the first female president of the chamber.
Bonnot is a Mid-Missouri native, attending high school in New Bloomfield and studying at Lincoln University, where she graduated in 1990 with a degree in social work. That led her to working in a job training agency where she focused on job development. There, she said, she would help match people with available jobs.
“I did really love that,” Bonnot said. “But then I started realizing I liked working with the business side more. … I didn’t know I would enjoy it that much.”
That realization helped Bonnot determine the career path that would eventually take her to the chamber. In 1992, she began working with the Missouri Department of Economic Development as a project manager working in business attraction and expansion.
“It was an awesome job,” Bonnot said, describing how it allowed her to not only travel all over the state in her 20s, but to New York, which was her territory, to work with consultants and companies and get them to look at Missouri.
From there, she became manager of business attraction with a team of eight people to cover the entire country and try to encourage businesses to locate within the state.
“It was a really exciting position,” Bonnot said.
And the position that would eventually lead her focus right back to the heart of Mid-Missouri.
In 2003, a company Bonnot was working with wanted to look at Jefferson City, so she got in touch with the then-chamber president, Don Shinkle, to coordinate a visit to an industrial site.
“While the prospect was looking at some land, Don and I were talking and he said, ‘you know, our director of economic development recently left,’” Bonnot recalled.
When Shinkle asked if she’d be interested, Bonnot was quick to respond.
“No way. Absolutely not. I love what I do, I love traveling, I love representing the whole state. Absolutely not.”
But he still pressed her to at least submit a resume, as it was the last day of the application period, and she wound up sending one over.
“We talked for the next six to eight weeks, and, lo and behold, I ended up in this position,” Bonnot said, chuckling.
It’s just one example of how something as small as a routine phone call can change everything, she said. If it hadn’t been for that company wanting to look at Jefferson City at that moment, things may have been completely different.
Bonnot said she wasn’t looking for the opportunity, but noted she had had plenty of moments by that time where she would see something and think, ‘why isn’t Jefferson City doing this?’ She recalled when Dollar General was looking to build a distribution center and needed a 100-acre site. When she contacted Jefferson City to see what was available, she was told they had nothing.
“I’m like, ‘How can the state capital not have 100 acres for this million-square-foot distribution center?’” Bonnot said. “It very well could have been in Jefferson City.
“It’s one of those things, it’s like be careful what you wish for, because one of these days you might be in a different chair. … It’s a lot easier saying it versus doing it.”
But that’s just what she’s done over the past 16 years, though sometimes it’s hard to show people. The term “economic development” can be ambiguous, and many people don’t necessarily understand what it means.
“You go around and ask 10 different people their definition of economic development and they’ll give you 10 different answers,” Bonnot said. “That’s difficult too, because everyone has a different opinion on what you should be working on.”
It also can be hard to quantify, as you can spend many hours on a prospect that ultimately doesn’t work out. The projects take time, Bonnot said, and the end result, even when successful, may not be something big and flashy that gets a lot of attention.
That can lead to misconceptions about the chamber itself.
“Everyone thinks that we’re all party planners,” Bonnot said, referencing a few chamber events that tend to get highlighted the most, like the annual gala or barbecue. “We’re not just about having parties. We work on (Missouri State Penitentiary) and we do work on riverfront issues and we do work on Heartland Port Authority.”
Even when the staff is able to get a big project, like landing Axium Plastics to take over the chamber’s spec building on North Shamrock Road in 2017, it’s quickly forgotten.
“People like that immediate gratification,” Bonnot said, and then the conversation quickly moves to what is easily one of the most frustrating questions she can get: When can Jefferson City get an Olive Garden?
One of the reasons it’s a frustrating question is because retail, while very important, isn’t exactly the focus of economic development. Bonnot said they try to attract large manufacturing or other industrial projects that will bring in a large number of jobs.
“If you work on these big projects that bring primary jobs, then retail will follow,” Bonnot said. “We don’t proactively go out and try to attract certain retailers.”
Plus, those national chains have requirements like population numbers or highway proximity that limit the sites they are willing to look at.
In taking on the leadership role, at least in the interim, Bonnot is continuing to serve as economic development director. The biggest change for her is shifting her focus to the chamber as a whole, overseeing membership and day-to-day operations, including board meetings.
And there’s the little tweak of operating during a global pandemic. She said much of her shift into the leadership position evolved over the same time as COVID-19 began spreading in the United States.
“You have to rethink everything and what you’re doing,” Bonnot said. “It’s not like I’m just picking up where Randy (Allen) left off. It’s totally different. Everything has changed in such a short period of time. You can’t even predict what life is going to be like.”
That’s led to Bonnot trying to take things in stride as she and the chamber staff work to adjust and figure out what things will look like later on.
“I don’t think there is a getting back,” she said, describing how the pandemic is likely to permanently alter certain aspects of business. “It forces you to be a little bit creative. … Resiliency, I think, is the key.”
It helps that Allen is just a phone call away, always ready to lend a hand and help if Bonnot needs. More than anything, she’s just excited for another new opportunity, much like when she first came to the chamber.
“I am so excited about it, just the opportunity,” Bonnot said.