“I work with all 12 communities in the county and all the businesses in those communities to help them either to expand or recruit new businesses to this area,” she said. “Also, tourism is a big part of what we do.”
However, getting to know the needs of the county didn’t happen overnight.
“What I did in 2006 will change a lot in 2007,” Huffman said. “Because I was new to this area, I had to learn who was here and learn all the partners and go outside our county and find out who the regional partners are to develop partnerships.”
Huffman also said she wanted to build on the Marion County Economic Development Council when she started her position last year.
“You know, there’s a definite difference (from a year ago),” she said. “We’re moving forward, we’re growing––growing in interest and in commitment of the members.”
Huffman said 11 of the 12 communities in Marion County are now represented in the council, with first-time representation from Lehigh and Lost Springs.
She said that she has been impressed by the increasing commitment of the community mayors.
“At Peabody we had seven mayors present at our (August) council meeting,” she said. “Never had that before. Seven mayors––pretty incredible.”
One thing Huffman continues to try to work at is having the council representatives take information back to their communities and vice versa.
“I tell them all the time, it’s a a two-way conduit,” she said. “You need to take this information back to your city and your city needs to give us information of what they’re needing and wanting.”
Another pitfall, she said, is the fact that she is the only person in her department.
“Everything takes longer than I want it to because I’m just one person,” she said. “I have no staff and 12 communities and one person. And we have a large county.”
Despite the challenges, Huffman said she is enjoying her job, and has worked to develop “big” plans for the county in upcoming years.
One major change Huffman hopes to bring to the county is increasing the amount of outside dollars spent on tourism––namely agri-tourism.
“Next year I’ll be pushing really hard on agri-tourism because it works in this area,” she said.
“People want experiences,” Huffman said. “Now that the baby boomers are retiring, they have the money and the time and they want experiences.
“People want to come and maybe ride a horse or pick a pumpkin or go on a hay ride or watch someone train cattle dogs. And it’s a way the family farms can continue.”
Huffman wants to further develop tourism at Marion County Lake and Marion Reservoir.
“We have two lakes and we are way down on the totem poll of dollars we bring into our county,” she said. “We should not be that way. We have got to bring in more tourism dollars. We’ve got to do a better job, and we’re working on that diligently.”
Already looking to 2009, Huffman said Marion County will host Symphony in the Flint Hills, which is expected to bring about 7,000 people to the county.
Huffman is also promoting Marion County as part of the Flint Hills region. The Flint Hills were made known internationally through a spread of photographs by Jim Richardson of Lindsborg in the April edition of National Geographic Magazine.
“We need to strike where the iron is hot, and right now it is with the Flint Hills,” she said. “People all over the world want to come here (Flint Hills), and we want them to come here to our county.”
Also within the past year, Huffman has watched Marion County communities pull together and start to “realize that what benefits one community benefits the whole county.”
“I think that is happening,” she said. “They are starting to work together. That’s great, because then we have more of a sense of community, not that we’re all out there by ourselves.
“Synergy,” she said. “I know that’s an overused word right now, but what will happen is people will get excited. Ideas will come to the forefront about how we can make this a better community and a more prosperous county, and that’s happening.”
Beyond her excitement over what has happened and what she expects to happen, Huffman said the best part of her job has been working with the individual communities in the county.
“They’re all so different, they’re so diverse and their needs are common, but their area is so diverse,” she said. “So it’s just been exciting to try to put together plans that will work for those communities.
“To me that’s the challenge, but that’s the fun part too.”