Last week representatives from Kiowa County United (KCU) spoke to county commissioners about a proposal they say would better utilize county economic development funding.
“Here we were, KCU, feeling like we’ve done as much for economic development as anyone but heck we didn’t even know who the economic development board was,” said KCU board member Scott Brown. “I thought ‘that says something itself.’ Everyone should know who the board is. They should be up front and out and about.”
Brown, along with KCU board member Ron Seiler spoke with commissioners for nearly 40 minutes last Thursday proposing the county make available all, or at least a portion, of the $20,000 it gives to the Kiowa County Economic Development (KCED) board to the KCU board.
Brown said he felt KCU could be better stewards of county tax dollars since they would use nearly all of the money for economic development projects, because they would not be paying for a salaried director.
“We live here, we pay taxes here and my opinion is what they have been doing, isn’t working,” said Brown. “If it continues the same way, we’re going to get the same result. KCU might be interested in taking on that economic development post for Kiowa County. We wouldn’t have any fees. We would do this for nothing. We could be that guidepost, that focal point where inquiries would come in and be sorted out.”
More than five years after the May 2007 tornado destroyed nearly every building and home in Greensburg, the county economic development picture has changed said Brown.
“I think the phone calls from people saying ‘we want to come to Greensburg,’ those people are falling by the wayside,” he added. “We think it’s going to have to be baby steps. We think we will grow with one-to-four person jobs. To me that is the way Greensburg needs to look at future economic development.”
Representatives from KCED were also present and touted the work they have been doing, which includes programs for local businesses, a loan program and history of economic development in the county.
“I don’t think Scott is giving us a fair shot,” said KCED board member Tom Corns. “We’ve accomplished quite a bit. We can’t tell the public about [the loans we’ve given], there is privacy involved. I can tell you that we’ve financed a sign company, a carpenter, two restaurants, a retail store, a sporting goods outfit and we’ve offered accounting services and business planning for current businesses.”
Page 2 of 7 - Corns, along with KCED board member Sue Greenleaf-Taylor vigorously defended the KCED, but acknowledged the need for some changes.
“Sometimes the boat has to get rocked a little bit to get peoples attention,” said Greenleaf-Taylor. “It can help us look at something we’ve been looking at through a different set of eyes. We agree that we need to change some of the things that we are doing.”
Greensburg officials were also present.
Mayor Bob Dixson briefly spoke to the commissioners and encouraged all of the groups to work together.
“I see no reason why KCU can’t be part of this,” he said. “I don’t discount that KCU has been extremely beneficial but we have to work together, this isn’t one or the other.”
A report issued by the Kansas Secretary of State’s office in January showed an 11 percent increase in statewide new business filings between 2007-2012, averaging about 13,300 filings per year.
The same report showed a long-term decline of new business filings throughout southwest Kansas.
According to the data, Kiowa County faired better than some, with 65 total new business filings between 2007 and 2012. Comanche County had 28 over the same period of time and Hodgeman County had 42.
By contrast, Ford County had 512 and Pratt County had 303 during the same time period.
Numbers from the 2010 census showed Greensburg with a population of 777 and a county population of 2,553 people in 1,013 households.
Trends show a 50 percent decrease since the 2010 census, likely due to the May 2007 tornado. But historical trends show steady decreases in population since 1920.
However, unofficial reports from the United States Postal Service show county occupancy numbers in a holding pattern over the previous two years.
Building permits for residential and commercial structures have dropped significantly since new home and business construction has tapered off.
“[Economic Development} is something that can take years to get started,” said newly elected KCED board president Monica Hayse. “We’ve talked to tons of companies. Getting companies to commit to Greensburg, finding a place for them, it’s tough. We’re competing with lots of other towns and other towns with more homes.”
There are at least four entities inside the county that have done some type of public economic development projects over the past few years.
A group of Haviland residents, with assistance from Barclay College, city officials and Kansas Sen. Dick Kelsey completed construction of five new affordable housing units last year (‘Development trio brings new housing to Haviland’ — Signal, May 30, 2012).
Page 3 of 7 - “It is nice to have some movement,” said Haviland City Councilman Steve Larsh in the article. “It shows that we can get something done and get moving. Hopefully it motivates people. I would like the city to look towards the future. To prove to everyone that Haviland is not going away.”
Since their incorporation in 2008, KCU, a non-profit group formed by about 85 county residents, has built a retail mall on Main Street in Greensburg, purchased and remodeled the former Wilde Flowers building along U.S. 54 and made a $5,000 donation to help complete the Kiowa County Veterans Memorial in Mullinville.
They’ve also invested in iQPurewood, a modular wood-wall fabrication product, opening an office in Greensburg last year.
“We feel that up to now Kiowa County United has done more for economic development in Greensburg than probably about anyone,” said Brown at last week’s meeting.
Brown estimates the KCU building on Main Street supports about 20 fulltime and part time employees among the eight businesses that rent storefronts.
“KCU was formed for one purpose and one purpose only and that was for the economic development of Kiowa County and Greensburg after the tornado,” added Brown.
Greensburg city officials have completed a number of their own economic development projects including Family Dollar, the Greensburg Business Park, the Big Well Museum and an agreement with the Center For Innovation, to name a few.
The city also has plans to construct a new airport and is expected to put its new multi-million dollar water treatment plant on-line within the month.
While Mayor Bob Dixson insists the city is not operating its own economic development office, the number of business and infrastructure projects originating from city hall is significant.
According to the KCED board, the non-profit corporation incorporated by Greensburg, Kiowa County and Chamber of Commerce officials in 2007, has committed funds to eight small businesses though connections with Great Plains Development (GPD) and the USDA Revolving Loan Fund.
The KCED has also funded accounting and business plan workshops and promoted the Rural Opportunity Zone, a state program that reduces taxes for new property owners over a 10-year period.
“We looked at our applications and we decided not to fill the position as advertised,” said Greenleaf-Taylor on Thursday. “We are going back to the drawing board and looking at maybe a part-time position. We want somebody from Kiowa County, someone who is invested in our community and I think we have those people available. We’re going to advertise that position again.”
Greenleaf-Taylor said the KCED board had received 12 applications for the vacant KCED director position since they began advertising it.
Page 4 of 7 - The director’s position, vacant since former director Dee Chandler was let go in October, has been somewhat of a lightning rod for critics of the KCED office.
KCED is funded by the City of Greensburg ($30,000/yr.), the Kiowa County Commission ($20,000/yr.), the Kiowa County Chamber of Commerce ($10,000/yr.) and the City of Mullinville ($2,000/yr.).
In previous years, a majority of its operating costs went to a director’s salary, which all parties agree did not leave much to use towards economic development.
“In one of our brainstorm sessions we figured out ‘hey by the time they pay a salary there probably isn’t a lot left to do other projects,’” commented Brown. “In my mind, we paid $200,000 worth of salary to make $50,000 worth of loans. That didn’t sound like a very wise return for the county and the city taxpayers.”
KCED wouldn’t confirm the total amount of loans it had committed to borrowers, but Hayse said KCED had not made any loan over $30,000 and most of the loans were small, providing “gap” funding not covered by a bank loan or private investors.
KCU has proposed eliminating that position in favor of a phone line that would route incoming economic development phone calls and emails to KCU members.
Brown said $5,000-$6,000 for part time salary and phone lines is all KCU would need, leaving the remainder of the money to be used on various projects.
“We don’t really want to do it, but we thought we might be able to do a better job,” he said. “We thought there might be a gap there we could fill, instead of putting that money into a salary. It looked like a waste of money to me and to a lot of people.”
With no director since October, Greensburg city staff has handled incoming KCED calls and emails. A message instructs callers to contact Greensburg City Hall with their inquiries.
Mayor Dixson and City Administrator Ed Truelove have been answering economic development calls and e-mails and following leads since Chandler’s exit.
Speaking with the commissioners on Thursday Dixson said they had been receiving one or two economic development phone calls per day requesting information about Greensburg.
Dixson said they have spent “significant time” handling inquiries and he feels an economic development person is still a necessity.
“You still need an economic development office that works with the chamber of commerce, tourism and other entities, not just to encourage new businesses but ensure the businesses we have here are as successful as they can be. It is tough for the city to do on a day-to-day basis.”
Page 5 of 7 - Speaking with Corns on Monday, he said that even if KCED decides to reduce the director’s position to part time, he expects they will continue to request the same amount next year.
The meeting last Thursday revealed a somewhat distant relationship between KCU and KCED.
Brown said he spoke to former KCED board president Rick Sherer about six months ago, requesting a meeting with the KCED board but that the meeting never happened.
A meeting with Dixson and 3rd District Commissioner Ron Freeman, resulted in a second meeting request in January.
Brown said in addition to the KCED board, he invited members of the Greensburg City Council and all of the Kiowa County commissioners.
A meeting took place on Jan. 29 with representatives from KCU and KCED, including former KCED director Bob Wetmore, during which Brown said he pitched KCU’s proposal to replace a director with a KCU operated phone system.
“I don’t think we were received well,” said Brown. “I think they saw it as we were trampling on their toes. I think they thought we wanted to disband them. That wasn’t it at all. I admit, I can get vocal sometimes, but I didn’t get mad, I didn’t shout but I asked them ‘tell me what you are doing?’”
County commissioners were not told about or invited to the meeting on Jan. 29.
Freeman learned about the meeting after it had already taken place and asked KCU, city officials and representatives from KCED to attend last Thursday’s meeting to discuss their proposal. “I wanted everyone in the room,” he said.
“We swapped some good ideas,” said KCED board member Corns when asked about the Jan. 29 meeting. “We have a vacancy on our board and we invited them to put one of their members on our board and put one of our members on their board.”
Speaking on Friday following the meeting, Brown said he was surprised that KCU had never been contacted by the KCED, even while they were constructing the new building across from their office on Main Street. “You’d think they would have come over and talk with us, but they never did. They never inquired a lick.”
“KCED is primarily in the loan business,” said KCED board member Corns.
KCED is partnered with USDA, the Kansas Economic Development Alliance and Great Plains Development, offering “gap” loans to small businesses.
Page 6 of 7 - KCED has approved only eight loans since 2007, but has met with “hundreds” of people seeking funding, they say.
They have strict guidelines for lending and do not fund “pie in the sky” ideas, but acknowledge they are able to make somewhat more risky loans than most banks.
Money is available on a “per-applicant basis” and Corns rejected the notion that there is extra money sitting in a bank account.
“After meeting with KCED and finding out what they do [with lending], we decided we really didn’t want any part of that,” said Brown. “But upon reflection we think we can do what we proposed without affecting what they do.”
Brown said his group isn’t interested in administering loans. They want to be at the end of the phone when people call about business opportunities in Kiowa County.
“If a phone call came in there would be somebody from Kiowa County, not from Pratt or Dodge City,” he said. “It would be someone who lives here, has roots here, has blood here and has invested heavily in Kiowa County. That is the person who would answer the phone. I’m not sure we’ll be successful, I don’t know if we’ll be able to recruit anything. I do know that we have Kiowa County’s interests at heart.”
Corns acknowledged that the loan funding would still be available whether they have a director or not.
Dixson said the decision to have a director or not is a responsibility of the board of directors, but is not inherently required by the articles of incorporation.
“There is a purpose we are fulfilling,” said Corns. “I think there is plenty of room for us to operate with Scott and his group.”
KCED acknowledged a need to adjust its strategy, proposing a possible part time replacement and renaming the position a “coordinator.”
“The city and county have invested in us and I think we can use that money more effectively,” added Greenleaf-Taylor near the end of Thursday’s meeting.
Hayse was asked why both groups couldn’t work together.
“I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I don’t know and I don’t know how that would work,” she said. “We are both pro-business, we are both pro-business for Kiowa County, but we are two different arms. We do different things.”
Page 7 of 7 - City officials, commissioners and KCED may need to address the issue again in August when countywide budgets are being drafted.
“I don’t think I would vote to take that money away,” said commissioner Freeman. “I didn’t mention it in the meeting because I thought people would take it as ‘passing the buck,’ but I don’t see why KCED can’t share some of that funding with KCU. Why couldn’t they take some of that money, hand it to KCU and see what they can do with it.”
The Greensburg City Council funds nearly 50 percent of the KCED operating budget.
Mayor Dixson was asked if he expected the council to make any changes in the coming year.
“We need time to digest it,” he said. “We want to make sure we are all collaboratively and cooperatively putting our best foot forward. We’ve got to find a way to utilize everyone’s talents.”