With the departure of Vicki Pratt (right), Dean Thompson (left), the chief economic development officer at City Utilities, is slated to become the executive director of regionalism and economic development at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce. (Photos provided by City Utilities and the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce)

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In an effort to help fill a gap amid a recent string of departures at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, City Utilities is loaning the chamber its own chief economic development officer.

Dean Thompson will take on an interim role as the executive director of regionalism and economic development at the Springfield Chamber following the exit of Vicki Pratt, who has been the vice president of economic development since April 2022.

In addition to Pratt, other leadership positions related to Springfield’s economic development, both at the Chamber and the City of Springfield, have recently been vacated due to retirements, resignations and for undisclosed reasons.

Despite the churn in personnel, City Utilities CEO Gary Gibson thinks economic development remains on track in Springfield.

“I don’t think we’ve missed a beat yet, but if we don’t pay attention to it, there’s an opportunity for that to happen,” Gibson told the Springfield Daily Citizen. “That’s why I think this is such a good, strategic move, not only on our part here at City Utilities, but the chamber and the city, to have Dean go and provide his expertise just to make sure that we continue to build on what we already have and that we don’t lose ground during this.”

Gary Gibson, CEO of City Utilities speaks at a public presentation at the Lake Springfield Boathouse in May 2023. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Pratt among several chamber staff to leave in recent months

The circumstances of Pratt’s exit from her nearly 12-month stint at the chamber of commerce, which was effective on May 24, are undisclosed. In her short time with the chamber, at least in comparison to former vice president Ryan Mooney, who served in the role for 11 years, Springfield Chamber president and CEO Matt Morrow said Pratt helped launch a new strategic plan for economic development and that several industrial sites and other project announcements have been made during her tenure.

An attempt by the Daily Citizen to reach Pratt was unsuccessful.

Pratt is one of several higher-ups to leave the chamber in recent months.

Longtime chamber employees Emily Denniston and Rachael Mhire Palmer, who worked as the vice president of public affairs and the marketing and events manager, respectively, have taken other jobs, as reported by the Springfield Business Journal. Meanwhile, Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Sandy Howard and Vice President of Strategic Communications Jennifer McClure are retiring this week. 

Matt Morrow

“There’s always going to be turnover, there’s always going to be people who are leaving the workforce and retiring or moving on to other opportunities,” Morrow said. “But it’s incumbent on the rest of us to make sure that what we’re doing is we’re positioning these organizations and ultimately our community and region for competitive success by helping to develop talent internally and build succession, and also being in a place where we can recruit that top talent for those key positions where we need to go outside.”

Morrow said the organization is making progress in finding replacements for some of the chamber’s vacant positions, in addition to the interim role Thompson will fill. 

In addition to the departures at the chamber, the City of Springfield lost two department heads in recent months with the abrupt resignations of the former Director of Workforce Development Sally Payne and Planning and Development Director Susan Istenes.

Despite recent staff turnovers at both the city and the chamber, Amanda Ohlensehlen, Springfield’s director of economic vitality, doesn’t anticipate any disruption to economic development in Springfield. Ohlensehlen said that’s thanks to the working relationship between the city, City Utilities, the chamber of commerce and other organizations.

“There’s stability within those departments that will kind of continue to help everyone have success in any kind of interim period,” Ohlensehlen said. “I think that the announcement of Dean Thompson in this new role with [the chamber], his leadership in that role and the strength that he brings on to the role I think will be really important.”

Thompson to remain CU employee, with primary focus on chamber

Since 1998, City Utilities has had a contract with the Springfield Business Development Corporation, the economic development arm of the chamber, paying $165,000 a year for economic development services, according to Gibson. 

Dean Thompson is the chief economic development officer for City Utilities. (Photo provided by City Utilities)

Gibson said rather than a cash payment, CU will instead provide Thompson’s economic development services and expertise. While Thompson will maintain an office at CU, and continue to technically be employed and paid by the utility, he will spend most of his time at the chamber, as an “executive in residence.”

Gibson said he doesn’t think this move will negatively impact City Utilities’ economic development efforts, but will strengthen them. 

“I actually don’t think it’s going to take away from anything that we’re doing,” Gibson said. “Having Dean focus all of his time on economic development, I think it’s going to be a really big benefit for City Utilities.”

While more than Thompson’s title alone will change in his transition to the chamber, Gibson and Morrow emphasized the collaborative relationship between the utility, the Chamber and the city when it comes to economic development will ease Thompson’s jump from one organization to another — aided by experience.

Regionalized approach to growth and development

In addition to his role as chief economic development officer for CU, Thompson is brigadier general for the U.S. Army Reserve and a former Republic city administrator.

As the executive director of regionalism and economic development, Thompson will put more of a focus on regional development than his predecessors. Morrow said he sees Thompson’s transition to the chamber as an opportunity to “do some things that make us more than the sum of our parts as a region.”

Gibson said Thompson’s regional knowledge and contacts will help him in his new role amid a growing desire for the Springfield area to brand itself more regionally, similar to how the northwest Arkansas cities of Fayetteville, Bentonville, Rogers and Springdale collectively brand themselves.

The John Q. Hammons Enterprise Center, where the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce is housed. (Photo by Cory Matteson)

“I think he’ll bring a lot to the team that’s gonna be really helpful in terms of helping us really up our game, be at the highest and best level that we can be as an economic development organization,” Morrow said. “Also, he has regional relationships and a background throughout the region, both with public and private sectors, contacts that will allow him to really hit the ground running in a really impactful way, I believe.”

While Morrow said there was a plan, “subject to circumstances,” to hire a permanent replacement for Pratt, both Gibson and Morrow indicated that CU’s interim “loaning” of Thompson to the chamber could last for well over six months and possibly beyond a year.

“These things don’t just happen overnight,” Gibson said. “That’s why we’re keeping Dean as a City Utilities employee…it’s hard telling which direction things go based on what’s best for the community and the region. We want to have an open mind and make sure that we’re providing them with the support that we need.”

Ohlensehlen praised Thompson’s background in economic development, public administration and public utilities, and said it will provide him a great perspective in his new role.

Thompson will start at the chamber on June 18.

Leaders commend collaboration to promote economic development

Ohlensehlen said the goals and successes of the city and CU, for example, are so closely intertwined that it is in their best interest to have a unified front to effectively market Springfield.

“I think there really is an effort or focus to proactively market our assets, which are many, and so having that lens of the various different entities participating in that process, really helps to make sure that we’re not missing any pieces,” she said.

Amanda Ohlensehlen, director of Springfield’s Department of Economic Vitality. (Photo provided by the City of Springfield)

Gibson emphasized the important role economic development plays at CU, and why CU has an interest in sharing its expertise with the chamber.

“It’s pretty simple, growth keeps costs low for all of our other customers,” Gibson said. “When you have a significant amount of infrastructure in the ground that you have to maintain, if you’re not growing, that just means the customers that you have [in that area] are the ones that are going to have to pay for those costs.”

Gibson informally refers to collaboration between CU, the chamber, the city and Greene County as the “Springfield Economic Development Partnership.” While they each focus on different aspects of economic development, he said that they’ve worked “hand-in-hand” over the years.

City Utilities with building and trees in the background on a cloudy spring day.
City Utilities with building and trees in the background. (Photo by Dean Curtis)

“[Thompson] already has those contacts, so we thought this would be a perfect time for him to come over and kind of help set up a structure and lead, not only on the regional discussion, but then also kind of help focus the efforts on Springfield through the chamber, because they’re still going to have a role to play in economic development Springfield itself,” Gibson said.

Morrow said that Springfield’s collaborative approach is different from other cities and that Thompson’s transition to the chamber is a perfect example of that.

“We’re all committed to doing whatever it takes to make sure that we deliver for this community and for this region with excellence in terms of competing for that investment,” Morrow said. “And that means that we help each other out.”

Jack McGee

Jack McGee is the government affairs reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. He previously covered politics and business for the Daily Citizen. He’s an MSU graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in journalism and a minor political science. Reach him at jmcgee@sgfcitizen.org or (417) 837-3663. More by Jack McGee