Bill Sepic arrived in Lawrence just before American Eagle Outfitters would ann-ounce plans for a new $45 million warehouse and distribution center in Lawrence's East Hills Business Park.
A few months later, what would have been the largest private economic-development project in Douglas County history was gone lost to nearby Ottawa, where cheaper land, an existing building and a lack of public opposition sealed the deal.
American Eagle's flight from town proved to be a valuable learning experience for Sepic, during his first year as president and chief executive officer for the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
"In hindsight, I wouldn't have changed a thing," Sepic said. "American Eagle really defined the culture of the community and determined how I'd have to work with different groups, and established how we'd work on issues from that point on."
He paused, pondering the implication of the early loss.
"It's really a good thing," he said. "When people refer to American Eagle, it should be viewed as one of the best things that ever happened here."
Sepic figures that there's no reason to dwell on the past, not when there's so much work to do. And his ability to squeeze positive outcomes from negative circumstances has marked his first full year as the top administrator for the city's largest business organization:
Negative: Sallie Mae decides to relocate out of town, leaving its building and 300 employees in limbo. Positive: DST Systems moves in, hiring more than half of the Sallie Mae staff and promising to expand even more in future years.
Negative: Southwestern Bell tells the chamber it needs to move from its longtime office space in downtown Lawrence. Positive: The chamber stands its ground, and works out a way to stay in its low-rent offices while focusing attention on the need to plan for an eventual move, whenever it comes.
Negative: Honeywell, Disney, Oread Inc. and others either relocate, shut down or go bankrupt, costing the city about 800 jobs. Positive: The chamber convinces city and county officials to help finance a labor study, expected to help determine what workers the community has available and what industries should be able to thrive under such circumstances.
Finding opportunity in adversity, that's the idea.
"It's not just how you win or lose; it's how you present yourself to the community and the public," Sepic said. "We've had an excellent year. We've had to react to quite a bit this year, but we've grown as an organization and a community because of it."
The loss of American Eagle provided the most glaring example.
Once the vacant farm field adjacent to the business park was spared development at least for now the chamber created a task force to identify sites in the county for future industrial development and preservation of open space.
The task force, called ECO2 (pronounced "Eco-squared"), recruited a diverse lineup of members to address a variety of interests. Its meetings are open to the public. Its recommendations, later this year, will be shared with elected officials.
"I think this is just one of many consensus groups that will be formed as we look at different issues," Sepic said. "We are moving forward. That's the only way we can look at it."
Several other issues remain on Sepic's action list, including continued expansion and development of Lawrence Municipal Airport; ongoing opposition to efforts for implementing a "living wage" in Lawrence; and completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway Sepic prefers to call it the "Lawrence K-10 Bypass" south of the Wakarusa River.
At or near the top of the list is legislative reapportionment, a population issue simmering with the recent release of updated census numbers for Douglas County and the entire state.
Sepic said he'd heard talk of a tug-of-war for Lawrence's population among Congressional districts. Lawrence and the county either could remain in the 3rd District, which includes booming Johnson County to the east; or jump to the 2nd District, which reaches past Topeka to the west.
A recent survey of chamber members found that 49 percent said they wanted to remain in the 3rd District, currently represented by Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan.; 17 percent said they would oppose staying in the district.
Sepic said that Douglas and Johnson counties already were tied together by the Kansas Highway 10 corridor, dubbed "America's Smart Corridor" by governments from Lawrence to Lenexa. The 3rd District also includes the Kansas University Medical Center, while Lawrence retains KU's main campus.
Sepic plans to lobby for a reapportionment hearing in Douglas County, to offer a forum for chamber members and others in town to make their cases for staying out of Topeka's congressional back yard.
"The growth and prosperity of Johnson County is more closely mirrored by us," Sepic said. "We are more similar with our community makeups than we are with Topeka.
"We like being Lawrence, and we like being a stand-alone community. However, we tend to look and feel and develop more along the lines of Johnson County, so it's very important to us."