After enduring a year in which the biggest business victory came thanks to a coach named Bill and a clutch shooter named Mario, leaders on the community’s economic-development team are eager to get back into the game when it comes to jobs, investment and — that’s right — recruiting.
A national basketball title for Kansas University certainly served up thousands of T-shirts, tequila shots and tourists, but business leaders contend that the only way for the entire community to win consistently is to create an environment for worthwhile employment.
“We will rise and fall with our ability to grow jobs,” said Mike McGrew, owner of McGrew Real Estate and vice chairman for economic development at the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. “Jobs need to be a priority, if not the priority.”
City leaders will convene a study session early in 2009 to discuss the community’s economic-development policy, strategies and programs. The discussion will come early in the tenure of Tom Kern, who started in November as president of the chamber, and will come as campaigns for the Lawrence City Commission will be rolling toward the April 7 general election.
Rob Chestnut, a Lawrence city commissioner who is in line to become mayor in April, said there was no time to waste.
With plenty of discussion already under way about sites for industrial development — a planned industrial park northwest of town along the Farmer’s Turnpike; the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant site at the southeastern edge of Lawrence; and an 87-acre lot in the adjacent East Hills Business Park — the community needs to come up with a workable process that helps existing businesses expand and other businesses to move in.
“Even though we don’t have a lot of prospects right now,” Chestnut said, “we need to look at all of those opportunities and see what rises to the top and may need some help and a little bit of investment, and maybe get us a good employer here in town.
“We need to make sure we’re not taking our eye off the ball. When there are situations, opportunities to expand — whatever — we want to be sure we’re considered.”
Sammy Sangam figures he’s doing his part. The owner of the Speedway Shell gasoline station, 1733 Mass., recently signed up to be a certified dealer for No Burn products, a line of flame-retardant paints.
Sure, he knows the city’s development sector has slowed, and construction of new homes has virtually ground to a halt. But that’s no way to greet a new year.
“I’m an incorrigible optimist, that’s the problem with me,” said Sangam, who’s had the Shell station for six years. “If we lie low, things will change. That’s the way everybody has to look at it. If everybody sees the dark clouds, somebody has to see the silver lining.”
McGrew has seen enough of the dark clouds. He’s watched as this year’s sales of single-family homes fell in Lawrence by 20 percent from a year ago, a drop that came on top of a slide “in the teens” from a year earlier.
“I don’t think Lawrence has ever seen one year of decline like that, let alone two years in a row,” McGrew said.
Still, he hopes to be “pleasantly surprised” in 2009, should the Federal Reserve’s cuts in interest rates, plus investments from an expected economic-stimulus program, start to “bear fruit” and get things going again.
“I’m optimistic we’ll start turning the corner, but I’m not sure how long it will take before we’re above the treetops again,” McGrew said.