Incoming Lawrence Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Lavern Squier is looking forward to meeting the "creature" that roams the city.
It doesn't have an official name, but every public official, most civic leaders and many business owners have met it. Maybe it could be called the Debate Monster, or the Creature of Prolonged Discussions, or maybe just simply The Process.
Chamber officials made sure Squier, who worked in an economic development position in Hays, was well aware of it before they hired him in early May. He starts his new job Monday.
"They talked to me a lot about the process that happens in this community," Squier said. "They said it is kind of an undefined creature, but that Lawrence will go through a process in virtually every decision it makes.
"It will include a lot of traditional players, like local governments, but lots of others, too, like neighborhood groups, organizations and individuals.
"But that process is one of the reasons I'm here. That's what I want to tap into. I want to get to understand everyone who is a part of that process."
Pulling common threads
Lawrence leaders were looking for a consensus builder when they began their search to replace Bill Sepic, the former chamber CEO who left in late 2002 to take a similar position in Lansing, Mich.
Chamber Chairman Larry McElwain described Squier as a "bridge builder," a "go-to guy," and a "good communicator" when he announced Squier's selection in early May.
Several of Hays' top officials also said Squier's strongest suit may be his ability to get people from varied backgrounds to agree. Don Bickle Jr. was one of Squier's bosses as a board member of the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development, the organization Squier led as executive director for nearly 13 years.
"He is a very unique individual in that he has this uncanny knack for being able to look into a situation and pull a common thread out of something that most other people can't see," Bickle said. "We've had times that our own city and county commissions years ago weren't talking to each other, and he was really the go-between guy that got people back to communicating again."
Squier said he believed there was a method to building consensus in a community.
"One of the first things you have to do is understand the particular situation you are dealing with," Squier said. "You have to understand who the players are and who should be in the room, because that isn't always one in the same.
"You have to really work to get the people in the room that should really be there. So, that's why really getting to know the people in Lawrence will be my first step."
Squier's main job in Ellis County was finding jobs. According to statistics, job growth in the county during much of his tenure was slightly better than the statewide average, but was well below the rate that Douglas County was experiencing.
From 1990 to 2000, Ellis County added 3,932 jobs, according to statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That penciled out to a growth rate of 22 percent, about 2 percent higher than the statewide average. For comparison purposes, Douglas County jobs grew at a 39 percent rate.
But Hays leaders said people have to understand the enormity of creating job growth in western Kansas.
|Age: 47Family: Married to Chris. They have a son, Nick, 17, and a daughter, Kaitlin, 14.Education: Bachelor of science in agriculture/business from Fort Hays State University.Experience: executive director, Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development, 1991-present; vice president of business development, Wichita Area Chamber of Commerce, 1989-1991; vice president, Stockton National Bank, 1983-1989; agent, Harkness Insurance Inc. in Ness City, 1982-1983; insurance department manager and real estate sales, Squier and Associates Inc. in Garden City, 1979-1982.|
"We feel good that our economy is growing," Gina Riedel, executive director of the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce, said. "Many of the other communities in this part of the state are facing a depopulation challenge, but ours has continued to increase. We think that says a lot."
The county's unemployment rate has fared well during the decade. In 1991 the average unemployment rate in Ellis County was 3.3 percent. In 2002, it had dropped to 2.6 percent, well below the statewide average of 5.1 percent. During the same time period, Douglas County's unemployment rate increased from 4.5 percent to 4.8 percent.
Squier listed his biggest job creation success as a project that landed Sykes Enterprises Inc., a call center for the computer services industry that added 400 jobs to the community. The deal was a unique one because it required Squier to beat the bushes and raise $2 million in public and private funding to lure the company to the city.
"I'm very proud of that public-private partnership," Squier said. "I think it is that type of consensus-building that helped me get here today."
But the numbers also show that Ellis County had the same problems as Douglas County when it comes to attracting jobs with above average wages.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average wage per job in Ellis County was $21,083 in 2000, about $7,000 less than the statewide average. From 1990 to 2000, the county's wage growth was 36 percent, lagging behind the statewide growth rate of 45 percent. Douglas County had nearly identical numbers, posting a 37 percent growth rate during the decade and an average wage of $22,876.