Conflicts and jobs dominate EcoDevo meeting
Longstanding animosities between cities and with the county were in the crosshairs at an economic development meeting Thursday as attendees emphasized that working together is the path to prosperity.
About 50 business people and local and county officials attended the county-sponsored meeting at Marion Community Center.
Several people had spoken when Tracye Warner of Florence tackled the issue of conflict head on.
“Do you guys hear what the young people are saying?” she said. “Some of the older people who have lived so long with these divisions between the cities and the county and the other cities, we’ve got to change, or we’ve got to let them take over, because we can’t keep bringing that old business up when we’re trying to do new things.”
Rodger Charles of Peabody agreed, citing a recent Wichita State University study that projected the county’s population would plummet to just over 4,000 people by 2064.
“If we don’t pull together, we’re going to pull apart, and I don’t want that,” he said. “I don’t want that for any of our communities. We’ve got to start making some changes and looking outside of the box, because inside the box isn’t working anymore.”
A countywide chamber of commerce with a committee focused on promoting county businesses could provide a forum for more economic discussions and collaboration, Marie Kessler of Hillsboro said.
Cooperative marketing by businesses and cities could increase visibility and maximize promotional investments, Tammy Ensey of Marion said.
“We’re all spending a lot more money than we need to be,” she said.
Chris Hernandez of Marion noted that Marion, Hillsboro, and the county each have significant money invested in economic development programs, and proposed they merge their resources under one countywide economic development director.
“If you’re working with a $100,000 budget, you’re going to get $100,000 results, no matter how good a steward you are,” he said. “We’ve got to stop thinking that way. We’ve got three budgets right now that are substantial. If we combine those efforts we’ve got a quarter-million-dollar budget that one person can do infinitely more with if he uses it wisely, and we’re all going to benefit.”
Questions were raised by Jim Hefley about how the county tracks the performance of its economic development department.
“In managing a business, I set goals,” he said. “Do you have written goals for your economic development department? Are they measurable, are they quantifiable, are there times they report back during the year, and are these people held accountable for these results?”
Commission chair Randy Dallke, who facilitated the meeting, responded.
“Yes, that’s how we do it to see what’s going on,” he said. “Marion County commissioners have to run a business, too, that’s exactly right.”
Hefley said he would like to see more information reported to the public about the department’s accomplishments.
Kessler said all three economic development departments should develop a list of businesses needed in the county so that they’re ready to suggest options for people who want to go into business but don’t know what they want to do.
“They should be able to tell them that and not tell them, ‘Oh, you should come to me with an idea, I don’t have that kind of information,’” Kessler said. “Our economic development people need to listen to their communities and know what we already have and what somebody can do to help the situation.”
Jobs and youth
Brent Barkman of Hillsboro broached a recurrent theme of retaining and attracting young workers by creating more viable job opportunities in opening comments.
“One of the challenges we have as leaders of Marion County is how to attract young people back,” he said. “Maybe the young people don’t have any idea of what we have to offer here. There’s hope if we can figure out a way to give young people hope that there’s something good going on, that there’s always growth going on.”
Joshua Boehm, who moved to Marion in 2012, said he and his wife, Courtney, came to the county for jobs, and that creating more and better jobs is essential for attracting other young adults.
“It’s a job that’s going to get someone here,” he said. “The community, the neighborhoods, the schools are going to keep them here.”
Boehm said amenities found in urban cities aren’t essential to bringing people here, as people in urban areas often spend as much time driving across town as it take for someone living here to get to larger nearby cities. As more people come to the county for jobs, more amenities will develop, he said.
Growing corporations would have an advantage locating here, Hernandez said, because they would be less likely to lose employees to competitors. Good jobs coupled with good quality of life would keep people here rather than commuting or moving for opportunities with marginally higher pay.
“If the plant is here, if the job is here, if their kids are in good schools, how likely is it they’re going to say, ‘I can get $2 more on the east side of Wichita,’” he said.
While several attendees echoed the call for recruiting manufacturers, Barkman sounded a cautionary note.
He said he has difficulty finding qualified workers for his business, Barkman Honey, and almost constantly has unfilled positions. A shortage of qualified labor would be a drawback for manufacturers looking at relocating to the county.
“We have a chicken-and-egg challenge,” he said. “We need more people in the community, we need more manufacturing to move in, but we also need people to fill those jobs. So how do you get the people here to fill the jobs to attract the manufacturing?”
Charles said the county should beef up Internet access, speeds, and reliability to make the county more suitable for the growing number of occupations that allow people to work from home, such as engineering and design.
He asked those in the audience who were ‘absolutely doing cartwheels’ about their Internet service to raise their hands. Just two did.
“We need to start looking at Wi-Fi service more like we look at a water bill, a sewer bill, a trash bill,” he said. “It just needs to be considered a part of daily life.”
Other topics of discussion included such things as improving countywide communication, making better use of the Internet and social media to promote the county and recruit young adults, emphasizing positive aspects of the county in local media, promoting development and tourism at the county’s two lakes, and creating more agritourism opportunities to draw in people from urban areas.
Dallke, Commissioner Dan Holub, and Marion Mayor Todd Heitschmidt said information from the meeting would be the subject of upcoming meetings scheduled with city and county officials. Heitschmidt encouraged broad-based participation.
“Everybody has something to offer,” he said. “It’s not the same, it’s not equal, but come to the table. That’s what we’re trying to do. It sounds like the folks in the room want to do that.”