County pressed to find economic development director

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
If Marion County wants even a taste of the state’s new economic development pie, it better get somebody to the table as quickly as possible.

That was the message a small delegation of local government and economic leaders delivered to the Marion County Board of Commissioners at its payday meeting Wednesday.

Stan Thiessen of Hillsboro, development coordinator with the South Central Kansas Economic Development District, said the state-as well as other counties-is quickly moving to a regional-partnership model for distributing its development resources.

In addition to the seven economic regions already developed within the state, including SCKEDD, Thiessen said counties are also forming smaller alliances of three to five counties based on similar interests.

Currently, he said, Marion County has no one who represents the development interests of the entire county, and unless it finds someone to do that soon, Marion County will be on the outside looking in.

“It’s time we begin to look at the regional implications of development for our county, and go well beyond what we’re doing community-wide in order to get to the table to have something to say regionally because we’re going to be get left out if we don’t,” Thiessen said.

Thiessen recommended that the county create an economic development department within its structure and that Peggy Blackman of Marion be appointed as the department’s director.

“If you look at our resources within the county, there is no better way of doing that than with a person who is already connected with those agencies, and that person would be Peggy,” Thiessen said.

Blackman, who participated in the presentation, is president of the state association of the Resource Conservation and Development organization, is closely associated with the Kansas Rural Development Council, and is a board member for Kansas Rural Initiative.

Blackman said she and Thiessen had already talked informally with a variety of community leaders, many of whom attended Wednesday’s meeting.

“We feel it is essential for Marion County to participate at the regional level,” she said.

Joining Thiessen and Blackman were David Mayfield, Marion city administrator, Carolyn Koehn, economic development director for Burns, Randy Dallke, Peabody mayor, Hillsboro Mayor Delores Dalke, and Steven Garrett, Hillsboro city administrator and chair of the Marion County Economic Development Council.

“We would be very supportive of something like this,” Mayfield said, speaking for the city of Marion. “We’ve tried other things, and it really hasn’t panned out very well. Maybe now is the time we look at something different.”

Garrett, speaking as MCEDC chair, said a departmental approach would strengthen the efforts of a board comprised of community volunteers.

“I would agree that over the course of the nearly 15-year history of the Marion County Economic Development Council, there are certain weaknesses-one being no central, responsible person and no central location. That major weakness of the group, no matter how we try to overcome it as a group, will always be there.”

Koehn, who is MCEDC vice chair, said another weakness of the group is that it focuses on the needs of participating communities, and hasn’t done much to promote economic development in the countryside-which is an emphasis of the current administration in Topeka.

“When we talk about Burns, we don’t just talk about the city-we also go out into the country,” Koehn said. “We have 23 small businesses that we’ve identified, and quite a few of them are out in the country.”

Commission Chair Howard Collett called the discussion “a wakeup kind of call for us,” and all three commissioners acknowledged the urgency of moving toward county-wide coordination.

But several concerns were raised about the best strategy to pursue.

Chief among the potential obstacles was funding the creation of such a department within the county structure. The budget for 2004 had already been approved, Collett reminded those in attendance, and the same is true for each city government.

When Collett asked the delegation how much money it might take to fund the initiative, most in attendance hesitated to suggest a figure.

But Garrett, based on his experience in Rooks County, estimated that providing a salary, equipping office and covering expenses could be around $50,000 a year.

Garrett also encouraged the commissioners to clearly define the job description before considering a person who might fill the job.

“I’ve already heard a pitch about who could lead the charge, Garrett said. “To my way of thinking, that’s not good government. We don’t come with a person in mind and bring it to the program. We need to figure out what the program is and then make sure it works that way.

“I’m not trying to take away from anybody,” he added. “We’re talking about good government and good use of tax dollars.”

Those involved in the discussion agreed that participation of the county in economic development should not undermine or duplicate what local communities are doing on their own.

In addition, Garrett said, communities in the county will need to agree what niche an economic development thrust at the county level will address-and that would require what he called “a common perspective” among communities.

“We all want good things, but that’s from different perspectives,” Garrett said. “We need one common perspective.

“In the past it’s been ‘my community first and all these other guys can do what they want,'” he added. “But a strong Hillsboro is good for Marion, a strong Marion is good for Hillsboro, a strong Peabody is good for everybody.

“We have less to fear from our neighbors than from outside sources.”

When the commissioners indicated they needed help to get started on this initiative, Dallke suggested where that help could come from.

“I think there are a whole bunch of us in this county who would like to be part of that help,” Dallke said. “But there are people in Lincolnville and Florence who don’t even know we’re here today.”

By the end of the discussion, commissioners were prepared to address the appointment of a task force at their Jan. 5 meeting. A report of that meeting appears on Page 12.

By their Jan. 12 meeting, they said they expected to have a clearer idea of the county’s financial situation and a better notion how feasible it might be to designate money to fund it.

Wetta underlined the delegation’s sense of urgency and the need to move ahead as expediently as possible.

“If the train is leaving the station now, I don’t want to have to catch up with it in a couple of weeks.

“Agriculture can’t carry us anymore,” Wetta said about the county’s economic future. “We’re going to have to figure out somehow a way to come out.

“We can sit back and say we can’t do anything. But the question is, ‘What do we have to do?’ We can’t keep going this way. We’re going to have step forward and say, ‘Charge!’

“Otherwise, I see in the future-in 10 to 15 years-we’re not going to be in any better shape.”

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