Written by Paul Penner Wednesday, 22 August 2007 06:24
In Marion County, the subject of economic development and the question of what to do about it draws little press these days. Not that there is any interest in the subject, however. It’s just not considered a wise move to stick one’s neck out too far for fear of finding oneself on the proverbial chopping block of public and political opinion.
Regardless of what one thinks of the previous suggestions for economic development brought up by the Marion County commissioners, suffice it to say, prospects for any rational discussion of any proposal in the near future seem slim, at best.
Thinking back during those days when coffeeshop talk focused on the pros and cons of inviting a casino into Marion County, of inviting a company to build a wind energy farm, or whether we needed an expanded criminal justice center that would enhance the revenue stream by housing prisoners from urban areas, discussion was mostly critical of the proposals, not to mention questioning each commissioner’s alleged lack of intelligence.
Perhaps the proposals deserved the criticism they received. Whether one is right and the other is wrong, that’s not the point. Missing in the debate were suggestions or ideas that could have pointed the commissioners in a new direction that could have given rise to a better proposal for economic development.
Arm-chair critics rarely bring alternative solutions to the table. Taking pot shots at the opposition in the relative safety of the status quo is preferable to finding the courage to take the lead in a new direction and subsequently discovering your so-called friends have painted a target on your backside.
Which begs the question, where do we go from here?
Obviously, one position is that we do nothing. In the economic climate we live in, however, things never stay the same for long. Economic activity rarely remains static, but fluctuates up or down, depending on many factors, including but not exclusive of interest rates, wage rates, property tax levies and proximity to competing centers of economic influence.
Additionally, once economic activity takes a downturn, it is difficult and often impossible to make a strategic correction to reverse course.
A quick look at the USA Mapstat’s Web site (www.fedstats.gov/qf/states/20/20115.html) shows Marion County’s relative position in real numbers to the state averages. With the latest numbers available, our population has declined 4.8 percent between 2000 and 2006, while the state of Kansas posted a 2.8 percent gain. Neighboring McPherson County posted a negligible loss of 0.6 percent.
In Marion County, 17.9 percent of the population possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher, while Kansas averaged 25.8 percent. Median household income came in at $37,263, below the state average of $41,664, which incidentally, declined from $43,113 in 2005.
McPherson County, however, posted a higher income of $45,392, well above the state average and a rate of 22.2 percent of the population with a bachelor‘s degree or higher.
Average earnings per job came in at $22,984 (2004 data) for Marion County, well below the state average of $36,383 and $30,389 for McPherson County. Persons living below the poverty line were 9.6 and 8.1 percent, respectively, for Marion and McPherson counties, with the statewide average of 11.1 percent.
One might argue we fare better in rankings when compared to other neighboring counties. It is partially true, at best. Chase County’s growth is positive, (1.3 percent), has more persons with bachelor’s degrees or higher (19.6 percent) but median household income is $34,432 and posts average earnings per job at $18,023. The poverty rate is also higher for Chase County at 10.6 percent
Again, a quick look at Butler and Dickinson counties refutes any argument favoring Marion County when looking at the raw data.
Needless to say, these counties, including Harvey and McPherson, are the competition that draws people and resources away, not to mention the nearby, larger urban population centers of Wichita, Hutchinson, Salina and Emporia.
Other than doing nothing, what can we do about improving Marion County’s economic future? To my knowledge, the only response has been the creation of a Hillsboro Impact Fund by a dedicated group of community leaders that recently ended its initial fund-raising drive. Their initiative is to be commended.
Other than that, the arena of discussion remains silent. The status quo remains in control.
If Marion County is to build on its reputation as a progressive community where more of our children would desire to put down roots and build strong families, the status quo is unacceptable.
I believe it is time for the critics of past economic development proposals to step forward and enlighten this community with their vision for Marion County.
If these critics have done their own homework and put some thought into a proposal for action, even if it fails in the final tally, they will have done well enough to have the deep respect of those who recognize sound advice.