Important now: Rely on the existing talent and synergies in the community to develop new industries, build a stronger and more diverse workforce, and create a healthier economy over the long term.
At first glance it may seem like a stretch for John Trischitti to be leading Midland, TX’s economic development arm after spending most of his adult career running library systems. But there is at least one profound similarity underlying the two different roles—the power of literacy and the might of an economy both help to improve and change lives.
Equipped with strong leadership skills and a passion for his work Trischitti has always ascended through various challenges throughout his life no matter what the context. He didn’t know it then, but he began developing those qualities when he was a young boy growing up in a family of meager means with limited guidance or academic focus.
When the passion for reading kicked in, he went from barely graduating high school to earning a Master’s degree in Library Science from the University of North Texas. A quest to help end illiteracy became a focus and a centerpiece of his eight years as director of the library system for Midland County.
Now as executive director of economic development for Midland Development Corporation (MDC) since 2019, Trischitti is intent on bringing a similar focus to the job. His goal is to “promote and advance opportunities in the community that enhance and diversify the strength and stability of the Midland economy.”
Additionally, his experience with how local governments operate, the intricacies of their taxing structures and working for a board that was elected are a bonus in his new position.
“We are all working toward and are interested in a thriving community for our residents to live and raise families in,” says Trischitti.
In the following interview, Trischitti reveals why Midland isn’t as vulnerable to oil price swings, how the city will continue to diversify its economy and to what degree the pandemic has added turmoil into the mix.
Your city has experienced “booms” and “busts” over the past few decades since so much of your economy is tied to oil prices. Is this Covid-driven downturn as bad as those in the past?
There is a misconception around the country that we have a boom-and-bust economy because oil is so cyclical. But the data shows that our economy is not nearly as boom-and-bust as it used to be—the technology is much better, and fracking was a game changer. So, the swings are not as severe.
Over the past couple of decades the data shows that in a boom we have a population rise but when we would have a bust the population doesn’t dip it just flatlines; the growth stops. That shows us that people are not leaving the community looking for jobs elsewhere during the downturns.
Our economy is certainly more volatile than other industries and we understand there are a lot of external geopolitical and socioeconomic factors that are out of our control. But the swings now are not like they were in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. There is more structure in the industry leading to less volatility than in the past.
With your economy so heavily tied to oil, what are some of the ways you plan to diversify it?
The MDC and the board are heavily involved in aerospace. Midland has the only commercially licensed air and space port in the country (see related story coming up in the next CityRevive). We have worked to make that diversification for our community. We have a lot of engineers here already and when we have an economic downturn because of oil we have a place for those engineers to get continuing education or retool their skills to work in aerospace or high technology fields like launching satellites into space for cell phones.
We have anchor tenants in our aerospace business park and are working to grow and diversify that base as well as build a pipeline so students can grow here. We have a lot of collaboration with the local Midland Community College, with the UTPB [University of Texas Permian Basin] and their engineering school to build a pipeline to have professionally trained engineers specifically for high-speed aerospace.
The FAA has licensed the airport to operate as a spaceport. We’re the only commercial spaceport in the country. We have two anchor tenants: AST & Science and Kepler [Aerospace]. We anticipate another two companies to locate there in 2021, depending on how Covid shakes out. We’re starting to build out the park with organizations that all work in the same sphere. It’s in the early days but trending in the right direction. We continue to be positive and optimistic about it.
One of the challenges we face in Midland is geographical; we’re very isolated. It’s a great place to live and raise a family but it’s tough to get people out here and convince them of that. Everyone faces that: the school system with teachers, hospitals and their doctors, energy companies with employees from Houston, Dallas and Oklahoma City.
What are some of the other industries that are growing to diversify your economic base?
We have also done a lot with healthcare which has had a positive impact during Covid. There was no child psychiatry offering before MDC partnered with the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center and we now have our first program. It has been a wild success; they were full in their first year. Before you had to go to Dallas to get that kind of care for your child. That’s another area where we are improving the overall infrastructure of our community.
We also have a lot of partnerships with educational organizations because we want to develop a strong and diverse workforce. We are partnering with Midland College on several programs; whether in EDL (extended day for learning) or welding or health sciences, we want to be able to provide those tracks so there are opportunities for young people to get educated and end up with good jobs in town.
Same with the UTPB. We have collaborations with the engineering school there. For example, MDC has invested in a small business incubator and makerspace initiative to fuel the self-starter Texas mentality to “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” (see related story coming up in next CityRevive). We want to assist entrepreneurs trying to start something new.
Our investment in the incubator and makerspace of $5 million is over a 20-year period to pay for staffing. It is a long-term program driven by UTPB. We saw the value in that program and spread that investment over a longer period of time to make sure they had the stability and faculty they need.
How has Covid impacted your city?
I don’t want to downplay anywhere else because Covid has been a tsunami of a worldwide pandemic. But Midland was uniquely touched times two; it was a true double whammy. Covid affected our restaurants, local mom and pop shops, the WalMart like everywhere else but compound that with oil prices that at one point were trading negative.
We’re starting to see some light with the vaccine becoming available and people taking social distancing seriously. We still have occupancy limits in some places, and we are seeing oil bounce back. Mergers in the oil and gas industry are creating more efficiencies. So, we’re starting to see a turnaround, but I can’t overstate the impacts of Covid.
Can you quantify how hard the city was hurt by Covid?
We watch sales tax revenue. We are funded by a quarter-cent sales tax and have seen a precipitous drop last year of about 30%, year over year. In December of last year, we had $1.2 million in tax revenue and this past December it was $843,000.
What are some of the ways you are helping your businesses survive through this difficult time?
Our board felt it was important to assist our local businesses because they are the backbone of how we live our lives day-to-day; where we eat, shop, and get our dry cleaning. Our board really wanted to do something to help those companies. After PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] came out they identified some businesses that were not eligible for the PPP dollars for various reasons. We created a small business program and offered loans to companies that had not received PPP. The program ended up pivoting to the city because they received federal dollars and were required to distribute them, so they are running the program now.
Local city leaders are keenly aware of the plight and struggle of local businesses and how that affects the local economy. They have really worked hard to give local businesses the assistance they need to keep their heads above water.
For more information contact John Trischitti at: firstname.lastname@example.org