This may not be the year for county officials to create a special economic development fund, but it's good that Douglas County commissioners are looking at this idea. Having even a moderate pool of money set aside for this purpose could allow Lawrence and Douglas County to take advantage of opportunities to bring more jobs to the area.
Because commissioners had earlier expressed interest in such a fund, County Administrator Craig Weinaug put forth the possibility of setting aside $750,000. Commissioner Bob Johnson upped that figure a little by suggesting that the county establish a policy that sets aside 1 mill each year for an economic development fund. That currently would raise about $1.1 million. The fund Johnson envisioned would be used for industrial site development, biosciences development and marketing by the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
Commissioners Charles Jones and Jere McElhaney had valid concerns about Johnson's idea. McElhaney wanted a firmer basis on which to decide how much the county should set aside in an economic development fund. That's a reasonable concern given the tight budget the county is working with this year.
Jones said he liked the idea of providing funding for industrial site development but said he was reluctant to provide additional money for chamber of commerce efforts that have been disappointing in recent years. The chamber's need to build confidence in its ability to aggressively lead local economic development efforts is a key factor in this discussion. That confidence currently is lagging among both city and county officials, as well as among a good share of area residents, making it more likely that even if additional economic development funding is approved, the city and county may decide to retain increased control of that money.
The good news is that county officials are focused on the need to go the extra mile - as other communities are doing - to be ready to respond to economic development opportunities. Nothing will be more important to the future of this community than to create new jobs for people who live here. There is little doubt that higher gasoline prices will force many people to live closer to their workplaces, which isn't good news for a city that has as many commuters as Lawrence does.
Maybe this isn't the right time to dedicate tight tax revenues to a new economic development fund. It could be that economic woes across the nation will make this a difficult time to attract new business and jobs even with additional funds. However, county commissioners are on the right track - a track that two new commissioners who will be elected in November should take note of - when they look at ways to make sure we are ready when economic opportunity knocks.