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Archive for Saturday, April 24, 2004

New chamber chair plans to stress diverse economy

April 24, 2004

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Gene Meyer looked ahead as he prepared to become the new chair of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. But he looked back, too.

Specifically, he's looked back at how the community survived the economic downturn that gripped most of the country for the past two years.

"We certainly didn't come away unscathed, but with the diversity of our local economy, we have been able to weather the downturn better than some," Meyer said.

Meyer wants to keep it that way. The president and chief executive of Lawrence Memorial Hospital plans on making the idea of a diverse economy a major theme during his nine-month term as leader of the chamber's board of directors.

"So much of Lawrence's economy focuses on Kansas University and KU activities, and that absolutely is important," Meyer said. "But one of the reasons I think we haven't been as affected by the downturn in the economy is because we still have a diverse economy. I want us to be focused on having a balanced economy."

Meyer officially took over the board's top spot from Lawrence funeral home owner Larry McElwain on April 1. Meyer's term will be nine months, shorter than the usual one-year term, because the chamber is changing its fiscal year to end Dec. 31 instead of March 31.

McElwain agreed with Meyer's goal of adding more diversity to the area's economy. McElwain said he thought a shortage of affordable housing in Lawrence was creating a less diverse community.

"Being a diverse community is wonderful, but being an elite community is not," he said. "The city and the chamber need to take the lead on affordable housing this year. If we don't address this issue, we're going to become more of an elite community and that is not positive."

Meyer also said the city must become serious about setting aside more land for industrial development.

"I think we have been doing well with our economic development issues, but we definitely have challenges of available space," Meyer said. "That's an issue that we need to resolve."

He also will be listening carefully to talk at City Hall about adding an economic development position to the city's staff. The city hasn't yet had detailed discussions about what the position would do, but Meyer is urging caution. He said he had concerns that a new position would create confusion among companies looking to locate in the city.

"I think the worst thing that could happen is we send a mixed message to those who are looking at Lawrence," Meyer said. "If you have two positions, it creates questions about who do you deal with. We don't want to create duplication."

Any new city position could create questions over whether the city should continue funding the economic development position at the chamber office. Currently, the city, county and chamber each provide $90,000 a year to fund an economic development staff that operates out of the chamber office.

Meyer said he would hate to see that system jeopardized.

"I think the structure that has been set up for economic development in this community has every opportunity to be extremely successful," he said. "We hope that it continues to have the opportunity."

Meyer also will be responsible for guiding Lavern Squier, the chamber's president and chief executive, through his second year on the job. Meyer said he had been impressed with the job Squier had done thus far.

"I didn't think what we needed was a glad-hander or a cheerleader," Meyer said of last year's process of selecting a new chamber CEO. "We needed someone who could really lead and develop positions and be strong enough to stand behind those positions. I think that's what we've got in Lavern."

As president and chief executive of LMH, Meyer oversees 1,200 employees, a $100 million budget and an organization that serves about 125,000 people per year.

But he will be unique as a chamber chair because he's not a business owner or a member of a for-profit company. LMH is operated as a not-for-profit organization. Meyer said he has heard some comments about a nonprofit executive leading the city's largest business organization.

"There may be some thoughts out there that a hospital person isn't a business person," Meyer said. "My comment to that is that the hospital is many things, but one of the things it is, is an extremely large business."

McElwain also said the chamber would be in good hands with Meyer.

"I think it makes a lot of sense because Lawrence Memorial Hospital is a big stakeholder in our future," McElwain said. "Its future and our future will go hand in hand."

It is a future that Meyer -- who came to Lawrence and LMH almost seven years ago after serving as an executive in the St. Luke's Health System in the Kansas City area -- is positive about.

"I really like the energy that exists in Lawrence," he said. "I like the variety of opinions. I believe that Lawrence is poised to play an important role in the development of this general region.

"We're attractive in terms of lifestyle, retail, education and quality of life. That is a good situation that not everyone is blessed to be a part of."

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