ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
The Marion County Commission found support among mayors for using county-wide taxes to fund a new county economic development director Thursday night.
More than 25 persons, including mayors from communities across the county, met in the district courtroom in the courthouse to discuss the idea of creating an economic development staff position at the county level.
No real opposition was voiced to the proposed position. Mayors and members of the public who spoke promised a spirit of cooperation.
Bob Hein, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, said the communities in the county would need to work together for an economic director to do the job well. He said the director would need to be somebody with a strong business background.
Commissioner Randy Dallke said he was glad to see mayors and persons in community leadership at the meeting because he felt that during the last six years as a councilman and mayor for Peabody there had been a lack of communication on the direction to take between the County Commission and cities.
City Administrator Steve Garrett of Hillsboro told the county commissioners: “It’s your meeting. We need to hear where you are on the subject. I don’t know. I pick up a lot of nuances from what’s reported in the newspaper.”
In response, County Commissioner Dan Holub said, “I am strongly for this possibility. We as a county need it. If Bill Gates were to walk in here tomorrow looking for a place in Marion County to locate a business, who’s he going to talk to?
“We want to expand business. Nobody is actively pursuing it for the whole county now, and the people we have don’t have time to do the legwork.”
A director will need to be knowledgeable on subjects such as available labor force, Holub said, so that mistakes aren’t made on locating companies here without the workers to support them. He called for a full-time individual based on the Harvey County model where a director helps businesses fit needs to the communities of the county that best fit them.
Dallke said that the voluntary Marion County Economic Development Council and Leadership Marion County are owed thanks for initiating economic efforts and fostering a spirit of cooperation.
Those inputs still are needed, he added, along with thinking even bigger. He asked for inputs on funding.
Hillsboro Mayor Delores Dalke said the county’s valuation is in excess of $94 million, and the most fair funding would come from county-wide funding, even if an increase in mill levy is required.
She noted that 50 percent of the workers who have jobs in Hillsboro live outside the city.
Because the jobs benefit everybody, she said cities shouldn’t pay a disproportionate share for an economic director.
The commissioners said they have $50,000 set aside by last year’s commissioners for an economic director, but it was an arbitrary figure not determined by actual accounting for the position.
Lehigh Mayor Ron Duerksen said he supports the position, but he wanted to know what it will do for the smaller towns of the county.
“Can we make it fair to everybody?” he asked.
Hein said he believes the position could work to the benefit of everybody.
Holub added, “Everybody has something to offer.”
He noted that Kansas Department of Commerce listings consider the availability of such positives as fiber-optics, railroads and buildings in all communities.
Dallke said there are two towns ready in the county to add businesses that could have 25 employees each, “but there’s a whole bunch of us that aren’t ready.
“But all of us are ready to handle small businesses that can put two or three people to work, and that may be all some communities are able to expect,” he added.
Dallke and Holub pointed out that if the smaller towns of the county house a work force that employed in one of the county’s larger communities, everybody in the county still benefits.
The two commissioners said the help also should extend to businesses located outside of city limits and to farmers and agribusiness.
Lincolnville Mayor Victor Burns questioned unemployment status in the county, and whether bringing in business simply would rob some other business of employees. He also asked about the balance of workers leaving the county for employment.
Dallke said the last unemployment figure he saw for Marion County was about at 5 percent.
Holub said workers commuting between counties could work two ways, with some coming into Marion County also.
Several participants noted that housing employees for new business helps all communities.
Stan Thiessen of Hillsboro encouraged economic development from a standpoint of “growing your own. We have a number of businesses here that could grow.”
Thiessen said a primary responsibility of an economic director could be in helping those in business with extras they can’t get done to promote growth.
He added that Lehigh is a good example with the growth of a home-based auto and farm equipment repair business.
Marion Mayor Martin Tice noted that the first mention in reports from the county on hiring an economic director was in January 2004.
“And we’ve still not accomplished anything,” he said.
He supported funding for the position at the county level as “the most equitable way to fund it,” and called upon commissioners not to give it too low of a budget to succeed.
“You get what you pay for,” he said.
Tampa Mayor Jim Clemmer said a director should draw on work already done, such as a survey of people available for employment conducted by the County Economic Development Council
Tom Schmidt of Peabody said the development position could be a clearance house on how to proceed, noting it would have to interface with leadership and economic positions already in place with cities and the county.
Sue Klassen of Florence said her city already has the highest mill levy in the county, “double Hillsboro’s,” and she is concerned about increases in money that might be needed along with the formula on how to get it.
Burns Mayor Mary Glenn said Burns has done a lot of itself in renovating its downtown area, but she would welcome somebody in a new position “to assist us.”
The commissioners discussed bids and interviews for the position with participation from both towns and rural areas in the process.
Garrett said the commissioners would need to have expectations and job clearly outlined for any new director, so the person would have “to spend the first six months finding out” what he or she needed to accomplish to be successful. He noted that if the communities will work together, much of the framework already is there for a director to work with.
Joanna Brazil of Peabody urged commissioners to have as much “grass roots” support for the position as possible for it to be a success.
Carol Spohn of the Tampa Community Association and Ramona Mayor Pat Wick encouraged commissioners to remember the recent agri-tourism meetings and efforts to enlist farmers in efforts. Spohn suggested approaching organizations such as Farm Bureau for ideas on farmer participation.
Dalke said Hillsboro, as well as the rest of the county, has suffered under zoning that hasn’t allowed sufficient signage along highways, and under lack of cleanup of Marion Reservoir.
She said the county is losing 100,000 visitors a year with the blue-green algae problem at the reservoir, adding that the zoning and cleanup both need to be addressed as major economic problems-perhaps even surpassing bringing in new industry.
Michael Hamilton of Goessel said a director shouldn’t be a person doing grant writing, but somebody engaged in recruiting and qualifying prospective businesses.
He said they should be after businesses that pay good wages- “we don’t need any Wal-Mart here.”
He said an economic director should be dedicated to the position, and he doesn’t care if that person is paid $50,000 or $75,000 if the job gets done.
Hamilton criticized county zoning for slowing up development, and said, “Let’s permit some rural housing in here.”
Gary Spohn of Tampa said, “A good salesman knows his product,” adding that the economic director should know Marion County well, and care about it.
Jim Davis of Marion said the county should be clear on what kinds of businesses it wants because it has already “killed” one major business that would have come here, a regional landfill at Marion.
“We need a plan for this person to follow,” Davis said.
He asked about the laws governing livestock feedlots, and whether 1,000-head plus cattle feedlots could be blocked.
Dallke said such feedlots are already covered under zoning, health considerations and state regulations.
Participants said the area needs more good housing, and tougher regulation of sub-standard housing to attract businesses.
Hein said the economic director discussion would be back on the agenda at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting.
The commissioners were saying they may be looking at $70,000 for a good person, “a miracle worker,” plus benefits.
They were talking by the end of the meeting of the possibility of up to a one mill tax increase, approximately $94,000, to support the position.