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Archive for Saturday, April 12, 2003

Planting for the future

Past year’s successes hoped to be seeds that bear fruit

April 12, 2003

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To hear Lawrence and area leaders talk, the past 12 months have been more about planting seeds than reaping a bountiful harvest.

After all, some of the largest successes of the past year have been projects that are expected to bear fruit in the future but haven't done so yet. Those include the decision by Serologicals Corp. to build a biosciences manufacturing facility in Lawrence, NCS Pearson's plans to add 150 jobs through an expansion of its Lawrence call center and the kickoff of a $1.5 million private fund-raising campaign to fund economic development activities. None of those projects are expected to be completed until late this year or early 2004.

The setbacks of the past year, though, have been very much immediate. During the past 12 months, Sprint PCS shut down its Lawrence customer service center, taking 500 jobs with it. Longtime Lawrence manufacturer Davol Inc. began the closing of its Lawrence facility, which will eliminate 130 jobs once the shutdown is completed this spring. Kmart Corp.'s bankruptcy hit Lawrence, as the retailer announced it would close its Lawrence store and lay off 80 people as a result.

And then there's the state's budget crisis. In a city where the three largest employers are all related to government, the state's approximately $100 million budget shortfall has put a number of jobs in jeopardy. Officials with the Lawrence public school district, for instance, are grappling with ways to fill an expected $3 million to $3.5 million shortfall in its budget.

"Every community leader has had to struggle with how to do more with less," Lawrence Supt. Randy Weseman said. "It has created a lot of stress and morale issues for our staff. You are talking about eliminating services, programs and people."

All of it has left some community leaders taking comfort in what normally would be ordinary accomplishments.

"Looking back on the year, I'd say one of the highlights would have to be just getting through it," Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson said. "It's been one of those years."

The successes

The past year included just enough success stories to keep leaders optimistic about the future.

At the top of nearly everyone's list was the Serologicals announcement. In December, the Atlanta-based company announced it would build a $28 million biopharmaceutical plant in Lawrence that would employ at least 40 people with an average salary of $47,000 a year.

Leaders hailed the decision for more than just its jobs.

Groene Brothers Construction worker Steve Koester maps out the
location of support beams for a deck on a home near the
intersection of Kasold Drive and Peterson Road.

Groene Brothers Construction worker Steve Koester maps out the location of support beams for a deck on a home near the intersection of Kasold Drive and Peterson Road.

"When we look back on 2002, there won't be any way people won't recognize the significance of Serologicals," Johnson said. "Partly it is because of the quality of the company and what they will do, but maybe more because they are the first big step for us to become a player in the biosciences field."

"And the people who know, say that field is the wave of the future," Johnson said.

Jean Milstead, interim president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, also praised Serologicals as a "landmark project." She said the project marked the first time in several years that economic development officials successfully had partnered with Kansas University leaders to bring a new company to town.

"That used to happen quite a bit in the past, but then over the last couple of years that partnership just hasn't been there," Milstead said. "I think part of that is because we just didn't ask. We've changed that."

City Commissioner David Dunfield said the project also pointed out at least one other success story of the past year. Unlike past projects, Serologicals sailed through the city approval process. Dunfield credits, in part, last year's hiring of Lynn Parman as the chamber's new vice president of economic development.

"There will always be disagreements about economic development, and legitimate disagreements," Dunfield said. "But the hiring of Lynn Parman has been a real positive. I sense she has a real interest in pulling our economic development efforts together."

There were successes besides Serologicals, though.

Milstead cited the creation of Excellence by Design, a chamber effort to raise $1.5 million from the private sector during the next four years to fund economic development activities.

Jim McCrary, center, co-director of the Hobbs Park Memorial, shows
a unique glass bottle to National Park Service representative Sue
Pridemore, right. Pridemore was on a tour of historic sites in
Douglas County as Judy Billings, left, director of the Lawrence
Convention and Visitor's Bureau, looks on.

Jim McCrary, center, co-director of the Hobbs Park Memorial, shows a unique glass bottle to National Park Service representative Sue Pridemore, right. Pridemore was on a tour of historic sites in Douglas County as Judy Billings, left, director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitor's Bureau, looks on.

"Hopefully it will allow us to address this bedroom community issue that we've been dealing with," Milstead said.

Johnson mentioned the construction of a new building at the East Hills Business Park. The building, built by the not-for-profit Douglas County Development Inc., is designed to attract a new tenant to the park.

"The fact we built the building isn't much of a highlight, but the fact that it will help create jobs someday will be," Johnson said.

Dunfield touted work by a committee to have Douglas County and the surrounding area declared a National Heritage Area. The Congressional designation is sought because of the role the area played in the abolition movement.

"It has a really strong economic component because tourism is going to be a very basic industry for us in the years to come," Dunfield said.

And Weseman pointed to something Lawrence is famous for -- debate. Whether it be about a living wage ordinance or about the vision for the public school system, the past year has been full of debate.

"I'm always encouraged by a healthy community debate, and we've seen a lot of it this year," Weseman said. "For me, progress is often measured by the level of planning and the amount of debate you've had. I think from that standpoint it has been a very successful year."

The setbacks

The past year can't be considered much of a success for job creation. According to state figures, the number of jobs in Douglas County decreased by 600 in 2002. And those numbers don't include the layoffs at Davol or Kmart.

Jewell Willhite paints with water colors at South Park.

Jewell Willhite paints with water colors at South Park.

"I think Lawrence has been harder hit in this economy than we ever have before," Milstead said. "I think in the early '80s when times were rough, the University insulated us more."

Johnson isn't sure this is the roughest stretch the local economy has gone through. But he does think the past 12 months have been the year that all the bad national news about the economy has hit home.

"I don't think there is any question this is the year we really felt it," Johnson said. "Look at what is happening with Sprint now. When Enron happened, I think most of us felt pretty distant from it, unless we owned stock in the company. Now it seems much more real."

"I think it just goes to show that the longer there are troubles, the more likely it is we are going to get caught up in it," Johnson said.

The city's largest industry -- the education industry -- certainly has gotten caught up in it. Both public school district and KU officials have openly talked about program cuts and layoffs.

"In terms of the problems we have with the state, this absolutely is the hardest it has ever been," Weseman said.

The outlook

Kelsey Osbourn shows her Jayhawk pride during graduation ceremonies
last May.

Kelsey Osbourn shows her Jayhawk pride during graduation ceremonies last May.

Weseman said he didn't have any confidence the situation would get much better as 2003 marched ahead.

"I have to say that I think it will be another tight year," Weseman said. "I just have no evidence to the contrary, especially with everything pending from war to gas prices."

Johnson said he also was not optimistic that state government was going to do anything to ease the pain in the Lawrence economy.

"When you have difficult times, people ought to be willing to open themselves up to look at ways to do things differently," Johnson said. "I don't see that happening in Topeka."

Here is an artist's rendering of the Serologicals plant in East
Hills Business Park. The Atlanta-based life sciences firm announced
in December it had chosen Lawrence for a new $28 million
manufacturing facility.

Here is an artist's rendering of the Serologicals plant in East Hills Business Park. The Atlanta-based life sciences firm announced in December it had chosen Lawrence for a new $28 million manufacturing facility.

But Dunfield said he still sensed people in the community had a healthy dose of optimism about the future.

"I think everybody recognizes that we've been going through a rough period, but all in all, I don't see signs that people have lost confidence in the city's ability to pull out of it and move forward," Dunfield said.

Milstead was the most optimistic of the bunch.

"I absolutely think it will be better," Milstead said. "I think what this has made us do is look at where we are and look at what we need to do to get to where we want to go. In the end, that has to serve us well."

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