Lawrence and Douglas County need to find ways to invest in our economic future.
Voters in Johnson County will be asked this November to make a financial commitment to their economic future.
Should Douglas County residents be making a similar commitment?
On the Nov. 4 ballot, Johnson County voters will be asked to approve an additional 1/8-percent sales tax that would be allocated through a new Johnson County Education Research Triangle Authority. The sales tax would be equally divided among projects for the Kansas University Medical Center, the KU Edwards Campus and Kansas State University's campus in Olathe.
Among other things, it would fund the construction of three new facilities in Johnson County: an engineering, science and technology Center at the Edwards Campus, a food and animal health innovation institute for KSU and a new clinical cancer research center for KUMC. The hope is that the new facilities will foster new academic research that could lead to new scientific, and possibly commercial, opportunities.
The county's commitment of local sales tax to academic enterprises would not be unprecedented, but it nonetheless is a significant move. The outcome of the vote is uncertain, but this could be the kind of bold action that would show the community's willingness to make a tangible investment in its future. It's an example that other counties - including Douglas County - might consider emulating.
There are, of course, major differences between Johnson and Douglas counties. The relatively minor 1/8-percent sales tax will raise an estimated $15 million a year in Johnson County; an equivalent tax in Douglas County would bring in closer to $1.75 million. While Johnson County is considering a sales tax increase to build its economic future, Lawrence city commissioners are looking at a considerably larger sales tax increase just to try to maintain its bus system and existing streets. Where's the vision?
Douglas County can't match Johnson County's investment dollar for dollar, but that doesn't mean that city and county officials shouldn't be trying harder to set aside funds that could allow it to take advantage of economic opportunities. Simply finding enough money to raise an East Hills Business Park tract out of the floodplain and make it more marketable is a major undertaking for Lawrence.
Lawrence is the home of KU, for heaven's sake. It would be wonderful if Johnson County wants to invest in advancing KU research, but shouldn't Lawrence have at least a piece of that action? Various efforts to promote KU research have benefited Lawrence in the past, but we seem to be losing momentum in that area, perhaps because of a lack of vision and leadership from both Mount Oread and Lawrence.
Adding to the local sales tax to raise research and development funds may not be the right strategy for Lawrence and Douglas County, at least right now, but it wouldn't hurt local officials to take a look at Johnson County's vision for paying for worthy projects and consider how our community might get moving in a similar direction.