Tom Kern wants to help.
At a time when many businesses are struggling economically, Kern and the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, which he serves as president and CEO, are stepping up to help.
Not only does the chamber work to attract new businesses, it also tries to make sure the businesses the city has are successful.
“The majority of our business growth will come from small and medium businesses that are already here,” Kern said. “It’s a matter of finding out what the limitations are that are hindering a business.”
Each month, the leaders of three local businesses sit down with Kern and other chamber representatives along with the mayor, county administrator and economic development leaders to discuss problems. The discussions are extensive, Kern said. Solutions for problems have ranged from simple signs to working out an issue with a railroad company.
“What we’re finding out is there are things we can directly do to help them,” he said. “Sometimes it’s really small, but other times it’s a really big issue.”
The nationwide downturn in the economy is affecting Lawrence, Kern said. Unlike past recessions, this one has brought layoffs to Kansas University. It is even affecting chamber membership. Some small companies want to discontinue their membership fees, Kern said.
“Our efforts to get them to renew are a little more extensive,” he said.
At the same time, new members are joining the chamber, which has more than 1,000 members.
“There is still interest,” Kern said.
The chamber also continues to be involved with other local entities and government officials in attracting key businesses, said Bonnie Lowe, president of the chamber’s board of directors. She and Kern noted the Kansas Bioscience Authority’s decision to provide $3.25 million for a bioscience incubator in Lawrence. The effort to get the incubator has been a model for collaboration among the chamber, city, county and KU leaders in conjunction with the bioscience authority.
As bioscience discoveries and products are completed at KU, the incubator will be a place where start-up businesses can develop an idea or concept and, when successful, perhaps they will locate permanently in Lawrence. In the past, those concepts have been taken elsewhere because there was no place for them here.
Kern and Lowe also see promise in development occurring at Lawrence Municipal Airport, especially in light of interest by DAR Corp., an aircraft design company.
“These are the type of jobs the community has always talked about wanting,” Kern said.
The chamber also continues to be involved with the city in getting the former Farmland Industries fertilizer plant cleaned up environmentally and eventually turning its 400-plus acres into an industrial park. But that is a project that could be 20 years in the making, Kern and Lowe said.
“Projects like that very seldom go as quickly as we’d like them to go,” Lowe said.
Concerning other chamber projects, a “Grow Green” Task Force has been established to study environmentally friendly initiatives. The chamber also is considering using the online Facebook social network for communicating with members, Lowe said.