The Gibbs Spotlight, Michael Southard

GCA assistant to the directors Camille Germany (C), sat down with Michael Southard (M), a Gibbs alumnus! Michael talked about his job and why he chose Regional +City Planning. Read on for highlights, or click the link below to access the full podcast. 

C: Michael, thank you so much for being here today. How are you doing? 

M: I’m doing well. Thanks for asking. 

C: I’m so glad you’re here. I wonder if you could tell me about your journey from being an undergraduate at OU and getting your master’s degree in regional and city planning and why you chose Gibbs College of Architecture for your graduate degree? 

M: Well, I was an undergraduate at OU in public administration. How I got into planning is a funny story. I was planning to go to law school and happened to be at the Mount in Norman one weekend. I ran into Trudy Bloodworth, who was a year ahead of me, an undergraduate in public administration, and she had asked what I’m doing. I told her I’m planning to go to law school next year. I didn’t know where at the time, and she says, “Mike, we don’t need any more attorneys. You need to be a city planner.  You need to look into it.” It interested me as far as some of the programs. 

C: That is a little bit ironic. Can you talk a little bit about a recent project you’ve worked on for the Choctaw Nation? 

M: The Choctaw Nation territory is a 10 and a half County area in far southeast Oklahoma. In the first year working in this position, I identified some of the needs, and we went through a strategic planning process. We launched in May of 2019. We launched our regional website, which is the first one that had been done for a regional economic development website. All our funding for the economic development activities at a regional level is coming from gaming proceeds. All my salary and activities come from tribal funds, where the communities are not having to pay anything. We put this profile together, and we won several international awards, including Best of Show at the Southern Economic Development Council. No one in Oklahoma has ever won that award. It has been really cool seeing how we’ve been able to progress very quickly. When I took this position, my goal was to win awards and create basically the country’s go-to organization for economic development. In a rapid amount of time, we’ve started doing that. People now recognize us for what we’re doing now, which has never been done before. 

C: That’s amazing. And it sounds like a lot of eyes are on you guys to be trendsetters in this. 

M: We did it internally; we used our marketing team. They all do stuff for gaming, and they’re doing the advertisements and things for the various commercial enterprises within the tribe. It was a lot of fun for them as well because they got to see different aspects. They really don’t do things on behalf of the communities.  

C: There’s been a lot of talk in the media right now about the economy during COVID-19. What do you make of the economic effects of the pandemic in southeast Oklahoma? And what are some ways that the organization will, and the website will help with the region’s economic development? 

M: We get invitations from professionals through our various organizations and get invitations to podcasts almost weekly.  If I was to put two words into your question, so I’d say disruption and pivot. Disruption in that there are the different aspects of economic development and tourism industrial attraction, business retention, expansion, entrepreneurship, small business, the tourism industry, the hospitality and leisure industry basically fell off the cliff in March. They’re starting to come back after being shut down for almost three months. The gaming, the casinos, the hotels, and the resorts were all closed; you had an entire industry that basically went dark for three months. Restaurants were closed; everything was a disruption of the entire industry.  The way that we interact with Economic Development is a very person to person interaction. It’s relational marketing. So, we ask the questions, How is that going to? What will that look like in the future? We’ve been internally within the Choctaw Nation, as far as the pivot side, because we’re not seeing companies actively doing site visits, coming in as far as industrial attraction, which in most economic development organizations, you’re talking 60 to 70% of their time is spent on trying to attract other companies. We’re having to look at maybe doing more virtual site visits, and then we’re also going to maybe concentrate a little bit more on our existing companies. We created a COVID-19 landing page, trying to keep the information in front of people the best possible. We’ve really had to take a hard look, and we probably will be concentrating a lot more on our existing companies. I think you would see that in most other atomic development organizations—because I don’t know when we’re gonna be traveling again—and that’s where a lot of our time typically will be concentrated. 

C: Yeah, sure. How does your education and work in the planning industry aid in the growth and development of the community? 

M: Well, I would say that my planning background and gifts from an educational perspective give me a broader perspective or a broader understanding of topics. I want to understand the different underlying issues that allow my background to quickly assess the situation and identify connections or relationships that others might if I were a pure economic developer. Social Justice and others are every bit of an economic development influencer or a decision-making influencer rather than an infrastructure such as wearing water or incentives. Having that understanding in economic development is only one school with a master’s in common development, but there are concentrations in planning. I see many planners in the economic development field or even the site selection field. I really use it daily to give me a better understanding of some of the econometric models.  

C: Hmm, yeah. It’s kind of an all encompassing degree that really gives you the background you need. 

M: Yeah, it’s very well rounded. I’ve likened the Masters Regional City Planning degree to an MBA, minus the marketing. A lot of the courses are very similar and have management courses and accounting. 

C: Yeah. That’s neat. So what’s your favorite thing about being a planner? 

M: I absolutely love getting paid to do my hobby. That’s what I’ve told my children, find that thing that is a true passion for you, and that you can make a living out, and you will be happy. You know, I enjoy going to work every day, I enjoy trying to solve problems, trying to help communities and over my career, which is going on 30 years now. I’ve been able to put and build homes and areas that no one was building homes. Now creating an entity that no one in the country has anything similar to. This truly is a passion, this is my hobby, and I happened to make a career out of it. I love the fact that I’m able to give back and improve individuals’ lives; I’m truly blessed to have been able to do what I’ve done. 

C: That’s amazing. That’s so awesome. So, what would you want other alumni and aspiring planners to take away from your work? 

M: If I were to go back and talk to the graduates, I would say: you don’t do what everyone else is doing just because that’s what everyone’s done. Find the best way to do it. Be passionate about what you’re doing, about your service. That’s the big thing that  I’ve been able to get out of my career and what’s allowed me to do this for 30 years without burning out. 

C: Yeah, that’s important. So you’ve accomplished so much already. And what do you see yourself doing in the next five or 10 years? 

M: Well, before March, I would have been able to give you, in five years, this is what my plan is and 10 years, here’s where I think everything would be. But everything from the economic downturn and with COVID everything seems to be squished. I kind of still see myself going in five to 10 years as I approach the end of my career. I don’t have plans. I’ve told people that I think I may have the best economic development job in the country in my profession, in that I don’t have to worry about the political and political will and maneuvering in that I get to be above it. I get to help communities at a regional level and have a lot of needs out there. I expect my team and whoever it is to be successful. I want my employees and my staff to also have those same sorts of ambition. I have an entrepreneurial spirit within the planning or economic development, which is kind of rare. I don’t just want to go somewhere because that’s the best place. So, in five years, I still see myself in economic development. 

C: Sure, yes. Thanks so much for taking some time out of your day to share a little about yourself and what you do for the Regional & City Planning program here at OU. You’ve done so much for Oklahoma already, and I’m excited to see your work continue and grow. 

M: Well, thank you. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity