Hearing explores future of county director for economic development

The 30 or so city officials and economic development promoters attending a public hearing Thursday evening agreed that Marion County needs economic and population growth as soon as possible.

There was less agreement that hiring a county economic development director as soon as possible is the best strategy for accomplishing those objectives.

The public hearing was called by the Marion County Board of Commissioners to gather input on hiring a county director after its efforts to create and fill such a position fizzled last fall, according to Dan Holub, commission chairman.

Holub started the evening by listing several question he hoped the group would address. The first one was whether the county needed such a person, but the rest addressed elements of such a position, including job description and qualifications.

But when Megan Kilgore, executive director of the Hillsboro Development Corp. suggested that commissioners first define what is meant by “economic development” and determine what kind of help towns are needing, the conversation took a turn.

“Before we hire someone, we need to determine the needs and how one can person can serve those needs,” she said.

Holub said in response that the commissioners hadn’t really address that issue last fall “before we were already in the hiring process.”

Several speakers agreed that “economic development” means different things to different communities.

For example, Goessel Mayor Peggy Jay said, “We don’t have the infrastructure to bring in businesses except mom-and-pop businesses. Rather, we’d like help to enhance existing businesses and work with housing issues.”

Tina Groening, chair of the Marion County Economic Development Council, encouraged the commissioners to find out what the various communities want and then “serve every community equally.”

Several speakers said the county needs a vision for economic development that the entire county can buy into.

Jim Elliott, president of Leadership Marion County as well as the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, said, “We don’t have a clear vision of what Marion County wants to be.”

He suggested that funds first be used to hire a consultant who could lead a “visioneering” process similar to one Wichita officials have been working through-a process that could help the county pull together.

“Without that spirit (of cooperation), we won’t accomplish much,” Elliott said. “No town is large enough in itself to have much economic impact.”

Jami Williams, in her first months as the city of Marion’s economic development director, said the county “needs to get over the rift between communities” if any county-wide initiative is to have a chance to be successful.

During the hour-and-a-half session, the conversation vacillated between the need for building understanding between communities and the urgency of getting a director on board as soon as possible.

Near the end of the meeting, Joanna Brazil, an economic development leader from Peabody, questioned the assertion that leaders of the various communities are really committed to the county-wide good.

“Are we really supporting each other?” she asked. “It’s easy to say that in this room, but when we leave here, are we ready to put those words into action?”

Steve Garrett, Hillsboro city administrator, agreed there is a lack of trust between communities right now. That can only change as people get to know each other.

“Trust is built through time,” he said. “This (meeting) is good, but if we never get together again it doesn’t do us much good.”

Elliott was even more specific: “If Hillsboro and Marion aren’t on the same page, (a county-wide economic development initiative) won’t work.”

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