Economic development hindered by errant, disjointed information
What do a dilapidated Chase County bridge, China, and former Marion economic developer Terry Jones have to do with economic development in Marion County?
Nothing, of course, but Marion city administrator Roger Holter showed city and county officials Thursday that all three were being used to market Marion County to prospective business developers.
Holter, a former business developer, stepped into that role to show several examples of erroneous information he encountered when researching Marion County.
“Almost every search I started with whatever I could get mailed to me from the chamber of commerce,” Holter said.
He held up a copy of Marion County 2015 Tourism and Resource Guide and pointed to the cover.
“This is what we’re using as a countywide effort to market our community,” Holter said. “Does anybody recognize that bridge?”
After a brief pause, Holter turned to county economic development director Teresa Huffman, who paid to have the guide produced.
“Come on, Teresa, help me out,” Holter said.
“No, nope; sorry,” Huffman replied.
“That’s over by Cedar Point,” county commissioner Randy Dallke said.
Holter affirmed the bridge is in Chase County.
“Just barely,” Dallke said. “It’s right on the same Cottonwood River that we all live by. It makes a good picture, doesn’t it?”
Holter pulled up the Kansas Department of Commerce website, then clicked “Marion County Economic Development Council,” which should have led to a county-maintained website.
“Is that Arabic or Chinese?” commissioner Dan Holub said.
Dallke was surprised.
“This is on the Department of Commerce website?” he said. “It didn’t used to be that way, because we’ve been there a couple of times.”
Holter acknowledged keeping information on the Internet current can be a problem as he clicked on an economic development link for the city of Marion.
Up popped a biography and picture of Jones, who resigned from the city’s economic development post in November.
“It’s a battle we’re all fighting,” Holter said. “I’m just trying to get the shock and awe out there so this conversation can continue. If you’re looking to come here, through all our efforts, is this going to get us the success that as elected officials you’re expecting?”
The meeting was an outgrowth of a letter Marion city council sent to county commissioners requesting clarification of what the county’s role in economic development should be.
“It made sense that between the county and Marion and Hillsboro, since we all have economic development activities, that we sit down and have a conversation and see where we’re all at, see if we’re on the same page, see if there are some things we can do differently, do better,” Marion Mayor Todd Heitschmidt said.
Hillshoro Mayor Delores Dalke said an economic survey conducted for the city demonstrated the importance of looking beyond city limits when trying to attract new businesses.
“If we present Hillsboro as having 3,000 people, we’ll never get anything, because 3,000 is not enough,” she said. “But when they did their survey, they showed we had a draw area of 15,000 people. You have to have those other numbers that show what your draw is and where those shoppers come from.”
The comment was an eye-opener for Holub.
“The draw, I never thought of it like that,” he said. “I always looked at the size of the community. That would make a big difference.”
Holub said the county has much to offer prospective businesses, but that significant challenges must be overcome.
“I think our big drawbacks are work force and where are they going to live,” he said. “I don’t know how well we can accommodate that. Not everybody wants to live in a rural county. That’s not necessarily a limitation, but we’re going to have to work at it.”
Holter said that Marion, Hillsboro, and the county each have particular strengths that would benefit the others if they could take a more collaborative approach to economic development.
Holter said that as Marion looks to fill its vacant economic developer position, the city could look for someone with skills that could strengthen all three entities, if it could be determined what that could be.
Officials will meet again to continue discussions, and in the interim will formally assess the strengths and weaknesses of their various economic development programs.