The town once known as “Little York” has grown to become Greene County’s second-largest apple.
The Springfield suburb of Republic reports an 18-percent year-to-year sales tax revenue increase, a clear indicator of an economic boom underway in the second-biggest city in Greene County.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Republic’s population grew from 14,751 in 2010 to 18,750 in 2020, a 27-percent gain in people. In the same decade, the city of Springfield had a 6-percent population growth rate, and all of Greene County had an 8.6-percent growth rate.
While she’s still a suburb, Republic is growing faster than her parent city, and the people watching the growth expect an acceleration rather than a leveling. Growth trends are so prevalent in Republic that they come to mind when you drive from Springfield and head southwest. On the side of U.S. Highway 60, a tiger statue emerges from an arched opening, with the words “Growing Together since 1871” displayed prominently on a brick façade.
By 2040, Republic’s population is expected to more than double, reaching a projected 37,386 people, according to a data estimate from the Republic city government.
Republic’s growth accelerated
On Aug. 1, 2021, Amazon opened “STL3,” a 1.3 million-square-foot “fulfillment center” on State Route MM in Republic, just south of where Route MM interchanges with James River Freeway.
Amazon announced an initial workforce of 1,400 people at the Republic site, with a plan to reach 1,800 employees by the end of 2021.
That was a pivotal moment in the city’s path to rapid growth, and city leaders played a hand in it.
David Cameron has been Republic’s city administrator since July 2016. He grew up in Republic but worked in northwest Arkansas for a time.
“I’m a boomerang — I guess that’s what you call it — when you leave the area, and then you come back home,” Cameron said.
In 2016, Cameron asked developers about the issues they faced when trying to start projects in Republic.
“It was difficult to navigate the process of permitting or just relationships,” Cameron said. “There’s always been an ‘Us versus Them,’ and I’ve been doing it for a long time. That’s not just Republic; that’s something that’s common, just a trend that you would see.”
Cameron said the builders he spoke with identified permit timeframes that spanned anywhere from 90 to 120 days. Cameron has worked to get the average time to get a building permit in Republic down to 12 days. When a new building permit application is submitted, a staff member in Republic’s Building, Utilities, Infrastructure and Information, Development and Streets (BUILDS) office reviews it within 3.5 days, according to data self-reported in the 2022 Republic State of the City report.
Responsiveness is critical, he said, on projects of major significance.
Cameron said it’s important for city staffers to be quick to react when proposals arrive, or when a developer contacts the city to ask for help. In the case of the Amazon fulfillment center, Cameron said he knew Republic needed to act quickly when Amazon executives reached out, because they had millions of dollars in development at stake in a short window of time.
“The Amazon project, you get a phone call — you know, one phone call — you’ve got 48 hours,” Cameron said. “Not a deadline, but you’re like, ‘We’ve got to respond now, we can’t wait for a lot of committee meetings.’”
To Cameron, the approach came down to making barriers to building — both residential and commercial projects of all sizes — smaller and fewer in number.
In 2021, the city of Republic issued 184 permits for new single-family homes, an average of just less than one new home every two days.
The Iron Grain District
Not to be outdone by Springfield’s emphasis on mixed-use development and the reimagination of commercial space, Republic has the Iron Grain District project underway near the interchange of State Route MM and U.S. Highway 60.
On its website, its developers pledge to offer, “contemporary apartment living within walking distance to new local dining, shopping and entertainment,” along with special events. The $65 million Iron Grain development is being built near Amazon and Convoy of Hope’s warehouse centers.
“The proposed Iron Grain District project brings retail and residential development together in a way that aligns with our current goal to make Republic a great place to live, work and play,” Republic Mayor Matthew Russell said.
The residential arm of the Iron Grain District is anticipated to offer more than 200 units, a pool, clubhouse, dog park and walking trails.
A 24,000-square-foot shopping center is planned for the first phase of development, with additional lots available for lease. Community-centered special events throughout the year will also be part of the development.
Springfield-based Magers Management is the company behind the build.
According to its website, Magers Management owns and manages 197 properties., namely Battlefield Marketplace at Battlefield Road and South Kimbrough in Springfield.
The Republic City Council rezoned the 29 acres of property at Route MM and Sawyer Road for the Iron Grain District in February. By a 5-1 vote on June 21, 2022, the Republic City Council entered into a planned development district agreement with Magers Management for the Iron Grain District, clearing the way for the build to begin.
The company has not disclosed an estimated completion date in any city council documentation, however, 60-month lease agreements for tenants are being advertised on the project’s website.
Republic commercial investments
Republic’s online project tracker shows 13 active commercial developments, both new construction and significant expansions.
Jordan Valley Community Health Center aims to build a 15,000-square-foot clinic on East Elm Street, just off of U.S. Highway 60 near the center of town. Plans for the clinic, which will house medical and dental care providers, are under review.
Construction is underway on a 3,700-square-foot Whataburger fast food restaurant, which will be the first of at least four Whataburger stores planned in the Springfield metro area. Whataburger is headquartered in Texas and has restaurants in 14 different states. Its cult-like following has many Springfieldians ready to race down Highway 60 into Republic the instant the first basket of fries drops into the fryer.
Whataburger held a groundbreaking in Republic in July and is scheduled to open the restaurant by the end of 2022.
Not to be outshined in the battle for quick service, Wisconsin–based “butterburger” and custard chain Culver’s is building a 1,300-square-foot restaurant on Highway 60 in Republic. A building permit has been issued, and construction is underway.
In northern Republic, close to where Interstate 44 meets the James River Freeway, Convoy of Hope is constructing a new office facility at 1 Convoy Drive, near the nonprofit’s World Distribution Headquarters. The building is 200,000 square feet.
Growing in spirit to match physical growth
Macy Mitchell is the director of the Republic Chamber of Commerce. He isn’t just an organizer, he’s also a client. He’s the owner of two businesses: All-American Rental and Sales and CrossFit Republic. Mitchell, who opened the CrossFit gym about a decade ago, is one of many stakeholders who has carefully tracked the town’s development.
“The local community is slowly but surely awakening,” Mitchell said. “The people who have done business here for years have seen a town that has grown slowly over time, but now is exploding. I think there’s that energy of ‘Oh wow, if we want to stay relevant, we’ve got to innovate, we’ve got to be proactive, we’ve got to do all the things that we became business owners for.’”
At the chamber of commerce, Mitchell said his No. 1 job is “to encourage the human spirit.” On a daily basis, he’s organizing events, fostering conversations, and managing the money that the chamber makes from membership dues.
The Republic chamber membership is not bound by geography. At least 88 Springfield-based businesses appear in the Republic Chamber of Commerce’s online membership directory.
Mitchell says he works to keep relations positive between the key players in the business community, government, the faith and church community, the nonprofit and charity sector and in the Republic School District. While they have different objectives, Mitchell said they can all share similar goals for Republic to grow.
“If people could do all of their business in Republic, they would,” Mitchell said. “When I’m talking to investors, I’m saying, ‘Guys, bring culture, bring cinema, bring your retail shops, your clothing, your footwear.’ Businesses can come here because we won’t go anywhere else if you bring a niche that we don’t have.”
Republic invests in its own parks, library
While commercial and residential development is taking off, government entities stand to do their part in about a quarter of a billion dollars worth of development in Republic.
In August, voters in Republic approved two ¼-cent sales tax extensions for parks and recreation. The first sales tax is expected to generate more than $900,000 by the end of 2022 and is used for personnel, operating and event expenses. The second will be used to expand the Republic Aquatic Center at a cost of about $7 million, the development of a 136-acre “regional athletic complex,” at a cost of up to $40 million, and to revamp J.R. Martin Park at a maximum cost of $4 million.
The Missouri General Assembly allocated $4.5 million for the design and construction of a library branch in Republic as part of its American Rescue Planning Act spending bill in 2022. The funding will help the Springfield-Greene County Library District build a new branch.
The first Republic library branch was built in 1961. It has relocated five times, and now stands just off of Highway 174 in northeastern Republic. Before any site selection or major planning happens, the library district staff and trustees want to secure more money through grants or other means. A timeline of events for construction of a new Republic library has not been set, but the American Rescue Plan Act funds come with a spending deadline of Dec. 31, 2026.
Support for growth in Republic seems to be flying in from several directions, but Mitchell said it will be important for the community to take steps today to accommodate tomorrow’s growth. That means spending money on amenities and necessities, like roads and water lines.
“Infrastructure is really the only thing I think at this point that can really slow us down,” Mitchell said.
Investments in highways and streets
The Republic city government is working with the Missouri Department of Transportation on a $25 million project to widen State Route MM to five lanes between Highway 60 and the Amazon fulfillment center.
“Rooftops create the traffic count, and the traffic count creates the need,” Cameron said. “When everybody is like, ‘Hey, we’d like to have this in our area,’ well, a lot of that is not based upon cold calling.”
Fast food franchises and store retailers need to be able to show their parent companies that a community has the people and the demographic population to support the store.
“We market and we sell traffic counts and the total number and the things going on around (a property),” Cameron said. “It’s market size that drives whether they’re going to come to your community or your region to begin with.”
Republic is close to the Interstate 44 interchange with U.S. Highway 60, the Springfield-Branson National Airport is six miles away, and a BNSF rail line runs directly through Republic.
“I see that infrastructure plus all of the water and sewer improvements we’re making to our system, it’s just creating more and more development,” Cameron said. “The MM corridor is what excites me quite a bit, and then our voters just approved the parks measures in early August.”
Challenges now and in the future
Finding real estate in Republic can be a challenge, as it is in Springfield, Nixa and Ozark. Mitchell said there are also people who have lived in Republic for decades, or even families who have been in Republic for generations, who don’t want to see it lose its small town look and feel.
“I don’t discount those who want this area to stay small; I understand that feeling,” Mitchell said.
To encourage people to raise families in Republic and spend their tax dollars locally, Mitchell said it’s important to find ways to sell what they want to buy.
“If you really want the people in the area to shop local, you have to offer the services and products for them to shop local,” Mitchell said. “You have to grow, but also you have to have real estate developers come in and have them develop buildings and structures for businesses to come in.”
It’s more affordable for a business to lease an existing building than to build from scratch, Mitchell said, but building a new building comes with perks and advantages at a higher cost.
“When we reroute MM over from Amazon to meet Highway 60, and then it’s going to go on out to ZZ to the high school area, you’re going to find that as almost another version of Highway 60, Mitchell said. “That whole area is going to be basically attaching Republic to Springfield.”
With growth comes more pavement, more power lines and more utilities underground. Cameron said staying up with a certain level of utility service, and then improving streets will be key for continued growth in the next two decades.
“That’s something that we’re catching up on, and most cities will say the same thing,” Cameron said.
Republic’s city administrator and city council also adopted SOAR 2040, a new comprehensive plan that will guide the suburb’s growth for the next 20 years. Republic’s comprehensive plan for growth and development went untouched for about 30 years before SOAR 2040 gained approval, and comprehensive plans can be hard to follow as a city like Republic continues to evolve.
“The last time it had been updated was 1989,” Cameron said. “Even the one we did a year and a half ago — it’ll need to be updated.”
In an effort to stay ahead, Cameron likes to keep 90-day and one-year action plans in several areas.
“We are not doing a very good job of communicating where we currently stand,” Cameron said. “We’re not communicating enough of what we’ve done, and actually, we have plans to address transportation. We need to up our game of how we communicate with our citizens in the region about what’s going on.”
Rather than encourage Republic residents to only shop and do business in Republic at all costs, Cameron embraces the suburb’s regionalism. He points out that people who live in Republic can go enjoy Springfield Cardinals baseball to the north, and Silver Dollar City and Table Rock Lake to the south. It’s about shifting economic mindsets from micro to macro, and from local to regional.
“There are a lot of reasons why you would want to live in the Springfield area,” Cameron said. “The outlying cities, to what I see in the relationship to Springfield is just how we provide and how our citizens — how the whole region connects collectively.”