Phil Struble was tongue-tied.
The longtime leader of Lawrence’s Landplan Engineering was supposed to be introducing the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce’s relatively new president and CEO to a crowd of legislators and community leaders.
Struble got the name right — it’s Tom Kern — but he stumbled over where he had been, what he had done, how long he had done it.
Struble could have saved himself a lot of trouble. He could have just introduced him as: Tom Kern. No. 3.
Kern is not only the third Lawrence Chamber of Commerce president in the last eight years, but he’s also the third consecutive Lawrence Chamber of Commerce president to preach the same message: Community consensus.
Kern knows it.
“I’ve had quite a few people say that to me,” Kern said. “That I will be the third chamber president who has tried this.”
No one seems to be faulting him for the familiar refrain. “That’s the proper issue for sure,” said Douglas County Commissioner Charles Jones.
But the question, of course, is: How will Kern be successful where others have not?
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Kern has been on the job since early November. He replaced Lavern Squier, who left in April after about five years on the job. Before that, Bill Sepic held the chamber’s top spot for about two years before taking a job in Lansing, Mich.
Kern comes to the job as a 20-year veteran of the chamber industry. Most recently, he was the chief operating officer for the Fairfax County, Va., Chamber of Commerce outside Washington, D.C. — another town where discussion and deliberation rule the day.
“My outlook on this job is no different than my outlook on life in total: Be inclusive,” Kern said. “We live in a world where no one organization solves a problem on its own. The chamber can’t develop an economic development strategy by itself.”
But develop one it must, Kern said. That gets back to the community consensus point that has been hanging over the city. Kern said without a community consensus on economic development, it is going to be difficult to attract new jobs to the community.
Kern — who says he is a statistics guy — believes the most disturbing number about Lawrence is its lack of job growth over the last five years.
“Any model of a healthy community has job creation, job growth at its foundation,” Kern said. “Most of the things a community wants can’t occur without job growth.”
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Kern says he understands the potential of job growth. In Fairfax County, he saw it firsthand. That county — whose economic engine is government contracting — produces about 2,000 to 3,000 new jobs per month.
That outside perspective may be helpful as Lawrence begins to discuss its job growth goals, but Kern thinks another experience he brings to the table will be equally important.
For 10 years, Kern — a Michigan native — was a government guy. He has his master’s in public administration from San Diego State, and rose to the rank of deputy city manager in Blue Ash, Ohio — a community of about 16,000 people.
Yes, that was long ago and in a community significantly smaller than Lawrence, but Kern said his government work has shaped his thoughts on what a chamber should do.
“What I think a chamber should bring to the table is that question of what is in the common good of the community, and how can we advance that,” Kern said.
But all of Kern’s past experiences may not be as important as what’s happening in the current economy.
“For the first time in a long time, an economic downturn is impacting people who live here in a way that hasn’t happened in a long time,” Kern said. “During a crisis, sometimes the willingness to look at things differently grows.”
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But the big question may become which side in Lawrence begins looking at economic development differently? Is it the group that frequently supports any proposal for new industrial space in the city because it says the community is desperately behind the curve? Or is it the group that frequently opposes industrial projects on grounds that they haven’t been well planned or that the community hasn’t looked at alternative forms of economic development?
Or, will both sides begin looking at the issue a little differently?
Kern hopes to work through those types of questions at a community-wide summit on economic development. Kern said the chamber has put money in its budget to conduct such a summit — which would include an outside facilitator — sometime this spring.
City Commissioner Boog Highberger — who at times has been critical of the chamber’s past efforts — said he’s ready for the community to engage in some serious discussion. For example, he wants a debate on how the community spends its economic development money. Highberger thinks the community spends too much of its resources trying to attract that large new company to town. Instead, the community should spend more time and money on helping small, existing companies add employees, he said.
But Highberger said he’s pleased that Kern is willing to talk.
“My impression has been positive so far,” Highberger said. “He seems to have a lot of energy and potential to bring people together.”
That’s what business leaders are counting on too — that Kern has something in his personality that makes him succeed where others have not.
Struble said he thinks such qualities actually were evident in that awkward introduction at a recent Legislative Priorities Breakfast. When Struble was still stumbling, Kern from the back of the room yelled, “That’s close enough.”
He then took the podium and thanked Struble for that “warm introduction.”
“I guess the honeymoon is ending quickly,” he said to a laugh.
Sure, it was just a quick laugh, but it opened up the room a bit. And Kern took advantage. Kern was among the last to leave the event, talking and shaking hands the whole time.
Struble said it is a sign that Kern won’t be guilty of a syndrome that sometimes afflicts Lawrence — closed ears.
“I know I’m tainted and have my opinions,” Struble said. “There are people I don’t want to talk to because I know their opinions and what they think. That’s not healthy. And that’s what Tom won’t do. He’ll talk to everybody.”