To Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson, Lawrence's struggles to attract new industry come down to a basic sales principle.
"You can't sell anything out of an empty wagon," Johnson said Monday during a city-county meeting with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. "I think for the last few years, we've asked you to sell our community from an empty wagon."
Johnson said that means the community doesn't have enough sites to offer potential industrial prospects, and it also means that industrial prospects haven't seen a desire on the part of local elected leaders to do enough to keep the city competitive.
City and county commissioners were told that when Lawrence competed to land a $100 million Hill's Pet Food Plant, economic leaders had only one 87-acre site to show the company in the East Hills Business Park. The company recently announced the project will be built in Emporia.
Johnson said that wasn't acceptable. He said the community should be in a position to show prospects sites on all sides of town, rather than just one site on the southeast corner of the city.
Other elected leaders agreed and said work needs to be done to identify future industrial sites. But County Administrator Craig Weinaug said those efforts in the past haven't produced results.
"I've been in lots of public meetings over the last 10 years, and I've heard lots of city and county commissioners say we have to figure out where the next business park is going to be," Weinaug said. "But at some point we have to get past the rhetoric and get to talking about a specific location and deal with the controversy from people who don't want it in their backyards."
Some commissioners suggested that time may be coming soon and said they were intrigued with an idea proposed by Jes Santaularia to develop 900 acres around the Lawrence Municipal Airport into a business park.
"That seems like a pretty logical site to me," Mayor Sue Hack said.
Hack also said the city was getting close to taking action on the former Farmland Industries site, a vacant piece of 400-plus acres that has been touted as a candidate for a new business park.
The property is being held by a bankruptcy trust, and the city has confirmed it is seriously considering making a bid to purchase it. A closed-door session is scheduled for tonight's City Commission meeting to discuss possible acquisition of real estate. That follows a similar closed-door meeting last week.
"I have nothing I can tell you right now, but stay tuned," Hack said after Monday's study session.
Commissioners said they hoped the private sector will step up and make proposals for other business parks throughout the county.
City Manager David Corliss told commissioners the community has a serious financial need for more industrial development. He said only 31 percent of the city's tax base comes from commercial development. He said the average for Kansas communities the size of Lawrence is 37 percent, which represents a difference of several million dollars in tax revenues.