Dee Chandler spoke frankly last week about her experience as the former director of the Kiowa County Economic Development office.
“From the get go it was an uphill battle,” said Chandler. “There is a percentage of the county that doesn’t even think the position [of Economic Development Director] should exist.”
The county entity, based in Greensburg was formed in the aftermath of the May 2007 tornado to “attract and retain business and industry” in Kiowa County.
Chandler said that there were a number of past, present and future challenges in achieving that goal.
“We have no wage appropriate housing,” she said. “We have two ends of housing here, we have high-end housing and low-income housing, but nothing in the middle. It is very hard to bring businesses in when you have no affordable housing.”
Most agree that construction costs are at least in part to blame for slow growth in the local housing sector.
Construction of new housing can cost upwards of $200,000, but the finished homes are typically valuated for much less.
Chandler also talked about the disproportionate number of government jobs in the county and described it as “top heavy.”
The Economic Development office, primarily funded by city and county contributions, operates on a $63,000 annual budget. City of Greensburg is the biggest contributor, accounting for nearly half of its operating funds.
Chandler said that though the city continued to contribute to her office (the city council approved payment of $30,000 to support the office earlier this year), Mayor Dixson and City Administrator Ed Truelove circumvented her office when they brokered the $161,000 five-year agreement with the Center For Innovation (CFI).
“They formed their own economic development department,” she said. “I felt it usurped my position.”
Chandler, who said she had been involved in talks between Dixson and CFI for nearly two years, had been asked by Dixson to speak on his behalf at an out-of-town engagement on June 4.
The same day Dixson and Truelove drove to Arlington, Texas, to hear a proposal from CFI president Wes Jurey.
Chandler said she was never told about the meeting.
“They did that behind my office’s back and behind the board’s back,” she said. “I didn’t even know they went. I wouldn’t have even known if I hadn’t been at the city council meeting [on June 4]. I think that was the beginning of the end right there.”
The city council approved the five-year deal with CFI on July 12, with only Councilwoman Erica Goodman voting against the agreement.
Page 2 of 2 - “We completely support the Economic Development board and their initiatives,” said Truelove on Tuesday. “The economic board does not have the ability to enter into a partnership with CFI. It takes a city or county to do that. I think at that time it was decided that the Eco Dev board could be a part of that process as a contributing member, but they can’t sign a contract.”
When asked what the Economic Development office and/or Chandler had contributed to the agreement between the city and CFI, Truelove declined to comment citing it as a personnel issue.
Truelove acknowledged that he had spoken with Chandler about the CFI deal, but only after it had been presented to the council.
Chandler said that without support from the city of Greensburg, the future director would have significant challenges. But, she said that the Eco Dev board, which includes Tom Corns, Elmer Davis, Rick Sheerer (Pres.), Monica Hays and Sue Greenleaf, were not singly focused on Greensburg and that they had always acted on behalf of the entire county.
“I thought that the economic development corporation was very focused on the county as a whole,” she said. “They didn’t want to just focus on Greensburg.”
Sheerer echoed Chandler sentiment when reached for comment on Tuesday.
“The economic development board represents Mullinville, Haviland and Greenburg,” he said. “It represents everything in Kiowa County. Now, on a daily basis we probably dealt with more Greensburg stuff.”
Sheerer said that the position would continue and that the board has begun preparations to replace Chandler, though it hasn’t advertised the opening.
“We think it’s an important role. We’re going to try to fill it locally, that’s our plans,” said Sheerer. “But we will look outside the county as well. We think it’s an important part of the growth of the county.”