For Marion County Economic Development Director Teresa Huffman, her plans for the months ahead are simple: Keep doing what she’s been doing – which also means the plans are complex.
“My job is different every day,” Huffman said. “When I come in here I think I know what I’m going to do, then the phone rings, people come in, and I’m off to who knows where.”
Unlike large communities with specialized staff, Huffman’s job encompasses the full scope of economic development, from working with and recruiting businesses to tourism, marketing, and more.
“Working in government is not for sissies, and I’ve done it for a long time, but I believe in what I do,” Huffman said. “I appreciate the opportunity to work with the communities in our county. I thrive on it, I’m passionate about it. That focus has never changed.”
A priority this year for Huffman is to re-establish a countywide group with membership from all communities to support economic development initiatives.
Modeled after the former Marion County Economic Development Council, which disbanded about five yars ago, Huffman said her vision for the group is to have committees dedicated to business development, tourism, and marketing.
“I’m looking at it being very, very much like MCEDC was, that it’s an umbrella organization,” she said. “That was a heck of a nice organization. “When they put that together in the 80s they did a great job. It should have worked, it should have continued. But I didn’t make that decision, or I would have said ‘No, we’re going to continue,’ because I liked it.”
An organization such as this could help to jumpstart projects such as the upcoming Chisholm Trail anniversary celebration and creating a county barn quilt trail, two efforts that have momentarily stalled for lack of participation, Huffman said.
Huffman said her “No. 1 focus” has always been to support growth and expansion of existing businesses by providing resources and information. Hand-in-hand with that is helping new small businesses get off on the right foot.
“I sit and visit with them and I hand them sheets of paper and say here’s who you need to contact for this,” Huffman said. “They all get the same sheet on certain things and then I start with the resources that are specific to their business.”
While always open to attracting businesses from outside the county, fostering homegrown small businesses is an approach Huffman prefers, touting several success stories.
“Marion Manufacturing, they are just the right kind of business,” she said. “It’s locally owned, they always have been, and they’re a model business. I look in Hillsboro at Hillsboro Industries, and a business offshoot of that was Container Services. It’s perfect. It’s just what you want. We just need more of that.”
While much of what county business people had to say at a Feb. 19 meeting was familiar to her, Huffman picked up on the issue of finding ways to connect job seekers with employers. She followed up by researching KansasWorks, a web-based job-matching and labor market information system.
“I went on the KansasWorks site and saw all the jobs that were listed in Hillsboro, Marion, and Peabody, so I think that’s important,” she said. “Do I need to advertise that job seekers and employers can come here and I can have a computer set up and hooked to KansasWorks and they can do that online here? Maybe that’s something I could work towards.”
Huffman also has met with county school districts to improve workforce development by advocating for adoption of ACE Work Keys, a vocational testing system that provides national certifications in various trades.
Statewide visibility drives Huffman’s efforts in marketing, from making connections with Department of Commerce officials to be tapped in to new business opportunities to her participation in numerous events like the Kansas Sampler Festival and state fair. Marion County benefits from Huffman’s membership in South Central Kansas Tourism Region, which spreads out the cost of participating in more expensive events and advertising in statewide publications.
Huffman places Marion County ads in numerous travel and tourism publications, offering businesses the chance to buy in to be listed when she can. In addition to her own website, the county is also featured on the state’s tourism website, she said.
“So the thousands of people that go in and they look up fishing, they’re going to see the dock out here at Marion lake; when they go into the museums, they’re going to see the museum over in Goessel,” she said.
Huffman would like to do more, but her budget is limited.
“Let’s put this in perspective,” Huffman said. “I have $16,000 to do everything. But Emporia just had a 60- second and a 30-second ad produced for $28,000. Just one ad.”
Huffman believes recent events focused on economic development have made commissioners more aware of the need for additional money for marketing, and said she’ll continue to advocate for more resources for her department to promote businesses and the county.
“I’ve told the commissioners, ‘Yes, I would like to see more,’” she said. “When I came they would say, ‘Do you need a staff person,‘ I said, ‘I do, but what I’d rather have is more marketing dollars, that’s what I’d like,’ so they did that. And then they quit asking me if I wanted help and they quit giving me more marketing dollars. This has all been very good to raise awareness with the commissioners.”