OK, economy: Develop! Now!
Marion county is being taken on a potentially devastating ride by a lurching economic development effort that took yet another bizarre turn yesterday.
Chris Hernandez, the affable mutual fund salesman who lives in the Wichita suburbs but has been leading efforts to secure funding for a private countywide development effort here, abruptly resigned.
His resignation came a day after he persuaded Peabody to join Marion in a sweepstakes to see which local governmental unit will contribute the most money and thus secure greatest control over the effort even as Hillsboro, the county’s biggest player, sits on the sidelines.
Despite a raft of vague, “big thoughts” ideas that Hernandez and others have been floating in recent weeks, the economic development umbrella that his group proposes seems to consist mainly of spokes with no fabric.
It’s as if some mysterious voice is calling from a rural Iowa cornfield: “If you fund us, business will come.”
What’s come so far have been only bureaucratic organizational charts, colorful pie charts about spending, and an insatiable desire to lock up every last nickle of taxpayer economic development funding and put it in the hands of a private group that will be largely beyond taxpayer control.
So far, Hernandez the salesman has managed to line up nearly $1.2 million in taxpayer money that will be funneled to the group over the next five years — $825,000 from the county, between $231,500 and $236,500 from Marion, and $137,000 from Peabody. That’s enough to write a check for nearly $100 to every man, woman, and child who actually does live in the county.
More disturbing, the way the project is being sold is anything but reflective of a new attitude of consensus and mutual interest. Rather, as was clearly shown during Monday night’s debate in Peabody, the sales pitch is that the more you contribute, the more you can skew the efforts into whatever direction you desire.
So what will happen if Hillsboro doesn’t participate but a potential new business wants to locate there? Questions like that plague the pie-in-the-sky proposal.
Meanwhile, actual development efforts have pretty well ground to a halt while the private group picks up every nickle it can find.
Peabody undoubtedly will relinquish its own Main Street director. Hillsboro has replaced a veteran developer with one who is still working on his bachelor’s degree. And, despite the county trying to act swiftly to fill an assessor vacancy, more than a month has gone by without any attempt whatsoever to address a void created when the county’s economic development director retired.
Imagine you’re a big-shot corporate type, looking to locate a giant new business — and a host of new jobs — in Marion County.
Google “Marion County Kansas economic development” to make contact, and what do you get? A picture of a grain elevator, an address and a map — all locating the development office at “Court House, Canton, KS 66861.”
There’s a phone number (accurate, to our surprise) both there and on the county’s own web page. But when you call it, you hear: “Ring… ring… ring… ring… click… ring… That mailbox is full. Thank you for calling Marion County. Our economic development and tourism department is transitioning….”
The recording goes on to give the county clerk’s number, but desperate to reach someone in development instead of a clerk, you find the county’s economic development website instead.
It starts with a breaking news ticker labeled “Latest.” The first and only item starts: “Saturday, February 26, 2016….” You look at “Events” and find two: one from Feb. 27, the other from May 18. There’s a newsletter — dated Feb. 3, 2011 — followed by an article about something from 1858 bylined “By Van Meter,” which actually is from historian Sondra Van Meter.
Desperate, you hit “Contact” and find the same phone number you just called plus — tada! — a cell number.
Call it, and it tells you: “Your call has been forwarded to an automated voice messaging system. (620) 381-3920 is not available. The mailbox is full and cannot accept any messages at this time. Goodbye.”
Goodbye indeed. Goodbye, business. Goodbye, jobs.
When this editorial hits the streets, we’ll undoubtedly be dismissed, as others have been, as contrarian, provincial, parochial — someone who “just doesn’t get it.”
Oh, we get it all right. The whole plan appears to be to create a very costly bureaucracy first, before needs have been fully assessed and plans clearly drawn to address them, and rather than heal traditional rifts, use them to fuel the process
It doesn’t matter that a similar plan has worked in Garden City. Already a regional hub for retail and industry, Garden City also is in a county with three times as many people. And it already had consensus on how to proceed. Consensus isn’t something that can be forged by a sales pitch about donating the most to guarantee the loudest voice.
If Marion County is destined to have centralized economic development — and we believe it is an idea worth considering if not blindly embracing — it should first have a centralized business association: one chamber of commerce for the whole county, named as such.
If it can’t agree on that, any grab for all the taxpayer-provided development money is just that — a money grab, not an actual, well-reasoned plan.
As is, the plan now making the rounds, as each municipality and group is being hit up, is at best premature and at worst carpetbagging.
Worse yet, actual efforts are being completely stymied in the progress.
— ERIC MEYER