Springfield's Office of Planning and Economic Development will focus on data and innovation to make city government more efficient, helpful to businesses and in line with Mayor Misty Buscher's goal of creating more good-paying jobs in the city.
Those are among plans for the office under Val Yazell, who was hired back to head OPED by Buscher after her election in 2023.
Yazell, who previously led the office under former mayor Jim Langfelder until March 2021, said she is excited about the professionals she has hired to fill long-vacant positions. Several of them just started in the office in November.
"The important thing for me was to find people who were self-starters, who were high-performing, who could think for themselves," Yazell said. "It doesn't happen every day that you get someone who has those qualities and those traits."
OPED has an annual budget of $24.7 million, 94% of which represents funding from local, state and federal sources for grants and other allocations to address community needs, Yazell said. The remaining 6% of the budget pays operating costs, including salaries.
Yazell pointed to new hires and new roles for people in the office as key to carrying out her goals for the office:ctor for community development and has more than 20 years of experience in public and health service administration. Cave worked in OPED previously but in a different role.
Kayla Graven, operations coordinator for business development, previously was executive director of Downtown Springfield Inc.
Sai Joshi is the city's Bloomberg-Harvard fellow, and Amy Rasing, operations coordinator for grants, has spent more than three decades in nonprofit leadership at the local, state and national levels.
"These women are remarkable in supporting one another and helping one another," Yazell said. "I knew I needed people around me who could problem-solve and didn't expect me to solve every problem, so I needed people just as strong as I am and as capable as I am."
The office will work harder to collect data and make decisions on spending money based on data, Yazell said. For example, decisions on who should receive tax-increment financing revenues from property taxes, and how much should be allocated, will be weighed based on the potential increase in assessed valuation that a TIF-assisted project will create for future property taxes, she said.
Staff members also will work collaboratively to determine whether a developer seeking assistance may be helped by a variety of programs and not just the specific program that the developer initially had in mind, she said.
That brainstorming will result in more effective use of the local, state and federal funds at OPED's disposal, she said.
"The goal of this department is to better our community," Yazell said.
And for the staff, the key to achieving that goal is "knowing all the programs and being able to work together," she said.
"There is a huge commitment to technology and a commitment to innovation, and our mayor is very supportive of that," Yazell said. "But you know, let's face it, it takes time, it takes finances, and it takes a cultural commitment. In the coming year, we'll be further along, but we will never be done because if you're truly committed to innovation, you're just always doing that."
OPED is working to revamp its website to make it more user-friendly "so people can inquire about the programs directly online instead of us having to mail them program information," Cave said.
The department also plans to be more active on social-media platforms such as LinkedIn, Instagram and Facebook to promote its services.
One of Joshi's focuses will be to develop a strategy for the city's land bank. And she is spearheading the use of the recently announced $450,000 grant the city received in Recompete funding from the U.S. Department of Commerce for the Springfield Economic Empowerment Project.
Buscher said the new federal funding will help "improve the economic mobility of our distressed communities. Our public, institutional and philanthropic partners' coalition has been leading the way to bridge economic gaps locally."
The project's ultimate goal is to expand training initiatives such as Lincoln Land Community College's Workforce Equity Initiative and the Highway Construction Careers Training Program.
Other partners in the project include The Springfield Project, Springfield-Sangamon Growth Alliance and the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln.
The grant, Joshi said, will "essentially help us to have a full-time person or a couple of part-time people who are working on developing this strategy further and working on developing the partnership further."
To respond to complaints that the city isn't "business friendly," several OPED staff members have received training from Harvard University faculty on innovation and are part of an interdepartmental team looking at potential improvements to propose to Buscher in the spring.
"We're interviewing people internally and externally," Joshi said. "We're meeting with department heads and staff who are involved in this process."
Graven said she is working to make sure OPED's customers are served better.
"Whenever a business comes to us and is not understanding the permitting process, we can help introduce them to the person they need to communicate with, or maybe we can be an advocate for them or an ally," she said.
Cave's latest focus is plans for a city-sponsored, four-day training program Feb. 5-9 for people wanting to become certified lead abatement contractors. The city currently doesn't have any local-based, certified contractors to remove lead-based paint from homes, she said.
"We have many families with poisonous lead in their homes that are waiting for assistance," Cave said.
There will be 18 spots available for the free training, a value of more than $500. More information and registration for the spots are available by phone at 217-789-2377 or at [email protected].
In her role, Rasing said she is examining the city's various grant programs for individuals and groups to "maximize our resources, both internally and externally.
"We're looking at grants, and the applications for grants, and the use of those grants," to make sure the money "aligns with everything else that we're doing," she said.
Rasing said she is considering "doing more storytelling" to the public about the impact of grants.