It appears there is a tug of war going on between Lawrence City Hall and the Douglas County Courthouse - with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce as a concerned sideline observer - over the growth and development of the city and county, the direction growth should take and who should be calling the shots.
For months, if not several years, county commissioners have led the effort to figure out the best way to develop and utilize the vacant Farmland Industries site on Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence. County commissioners, particularly Charles Jones and Bob Johnson, have devoted much time to studying the potential of the 467-acre site, the cost of cleaning up any hazards left by the former fertilizer plant, the best possible uses for the land, how to pay for the land, how much space should be allocated to manufacturing and industrial uses versus green space, and other relevant issues.
However, with recent stories telling of a significant slowdown in the city's growth, a possible embarrassing loss in population, a growing business-vacancy rate in downtown Lawrence and lower construction numbers comes the somewhat sudden realization by some city officials that more new business and industry is needed to generate new jobs and tax revenue to pay the bills Lawrence will incur as it updates and improves the city's infrastructure. The city is hard up financially, and it needs to find alternate ways to come up with more dollars.
Some city commissioners sought their elective positions by championing "smart growth," telling voters they would pay more attention to controlling the city's expansion, limiting what they portrayed as uncontrolled, insensitive growth. It worked, they were elected, and the city's growth has almost come to a standstill.
Now, however, there appears to be sufficient concern or awareness among these same city commissioners that the city needs a shot in the arm with new businesses and industry, more jobs and more tax revenue because the city has just about reached the limit of how much burden it can place on the shoulders of existing city taxpayers.
Therefore, it looks as if City Hall is about to try to hijack the Farmland project from the county. They, the city commissioners, want to take credit for anything good that might happen at the site. They want voters to think it was their vision and competence that developed the Farmland property, bringing in potential jobs and adding to the Lawrence tax base.
Particularly, they want those who voted for them and their slow-growth or smart-growth promises to stick with them, continue their support and not think they have abandoned their campaign talk, even though they now are pushing for growth and city involvement in the Farmland project. They don't want to lose the support of those who put them in office, and they don't want to be labeled as helping engineer the current, potentially dangerous curtailment of growth. Likewise, they don't like the idea of having to raise taxes for local residents.
This is a political juggling act in which they are walking a tight wire concerning growth, jobs, taxes and their own possible re-election.
In addition to the Farmland matter, city officials plan to create a new economic development coordinator position even though the city already is helping fund, along with the county and the Chamber of Commerce, an economic development program run by the chamber.
What does it say about how the city will grow and where it will be allowed to grow if the city has its own economic development officer? Who are the commissioners going to listen to concerning economic growth: their own staff member or someone from the Chamber of Commerce or county? Chances are an economic development hire is likely to develop policies and actions that he or she thinks will please the people who funded the office and who are paying his or her salary.
What about the duplication of efforts and the unnecessary costs? Apparently, city commissioners see nothing wrong with the added costs or the appearance of the commissioners having their own in-house economic development specialist who will be in lockstep with the commissioners' thinking.
Apparently, the city is not so short of funds that it can't afford to pay for a new office and the staffing to duplicate or parallel what already is being done by the chamber, city and county team.
Are commissioners saying they don't think the county and chamber are measuring up in their efforts in this arena? Are they saying the city can do a better job and knows what is best for the city and county concerning effective economic stimulus and growth?
It's clear city commissioners want to be in control to plan and direct the city's growth. Perhaps they can do a better job than has been done in the past, but Lawrence and the county were doing fairly well, in fact, was one of the best success stories in the state until a combination of complacency and City Hall policies and attitudes changed the scene.
It is unfortunate the enthusiastic, cooperative and effective economic development climate that was the hallmark of Lawrence for so many years cannot be restored.