University of Missouri Extension is moving toward a more visible role in the community, including a focus on how its programs can improve economic development.

“You’re going to really hear us talking about that going forward,” Marshall Stewart, the university’s vice chancellor of extension and engagement, said Thursday. Extension has services in every county, and that includes offices for Jackson County both in Blue Springs and in the River Market area of Kansas City.

Stewart has been on the job for 14 months, and he’s spent much of that time traveling the state, asking Missourians about their concerns. That survey of the state, he said, starts with questions such as, “How would you like your community to be better? What would your highest aspirations be?”

Although the state is diverse in many ways, he said, three main concerns rose to the top.

“The big banners across the whole state are the economy, education and health,” he said, adding that areas with strong economies are generally doing OK on the other two.

Extension services began, and continue, with the idea of taking university research and pushing it out into the community. Although often associated with programs such as Master Gardeners and 4-H, its programs also cover nutrition and health, consumer education, business development and emergency management.

“It’s about taking the knowledge of the university to the people,” Stewart said.

To illustrate a program set to come out soon, he used the example of an eighth-grade teacher planning a webinar or seminar on meteorology being able to call on someone from the university as an expert.

“That’s transformational, because you’re unleashing the university to the people of Missouri,” he said.

Extension has an annual budget of $84 million and an annual economic impact, he said, of $945 million. That’s a good return on investment of public money, something taxpayers rightly look for, he said.

He said a program such as 4-H can be looked at more broadly, focusing on skills that youths could take into a career – an overall aid to the state’s economy.

“We can use what we do, just use it differently,” Stewart said.

He said the university recognizes the need for improved workforce development – getting workers ready for the jobs of today and tomorrow – to Missouri.

“And if you’re going to grow the economy, you’ve got to get involved in that,” he said.