Forget the National Championship. Forget the football team’s recent bowl successes. Forget whatever victory it was that caused you to do that funny looking dance on Massachusetts Street.
The truth is, Lawrence is mired in a losing streak — at least according to federal statistics that measure jobs.
From December 2007 to June 2008, Lawrence and Douglas County lost jobs each and every month when compared with the same month the previous year, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The losses came at a time when the state as a whole and several area counties were still adding jobs. Douglas County had an average monthly job loss of 1.3 percent during the time period, while the state as a whole was adding jobs at a 0.5 percent rate. Johnson and Shawnee counties were adding jobs at a rate greater than 1 percent per month, and Riley County was at 7.3 percent.
Numbers for the second half of the year — which included several high profile layoffs in Lawrence — haven’t been released yet.
The eight candidates running for the Lawrence City Commission don’t often talk about the numbers, but the subject of jobs is virtually a guaranteed talking point at every campaign stop.
Here’s a look at what candidates are saying about several job and economic development-related issues.
Issue: New ideas
Job growth has been the dominant topic of the last several City Commission elections, but job growth numbers haven’t exactly surged in recent years. From 2001 to 2007, Douglas County saw its job totals grow by 2.5 percent for the period.
That was slightly below the statewide average of 2.8 percent, and well below the numbers of some area counties. During the same time period, Franklin County grew by 12.6 percent, Johnson by 8.1 percent, and Riley by 13.4 percent.
All eight candidates said they would bring some new ideas to the table to help spur job growth.
“There is no reason for us to be below the statewide average,” said Aron Cromwell.
He said he supports talk of converting part of the Lawrence Public Library into a center where entrepreneurs could come together and collaborate on ideas and research. He also said he wants economic development leaders to focus more on two potentially lucrative growth areas: tourism and the attraction of retirees who want to live in the city.
Gwen Klingenberg said she wants to start a program that would hook graduating KU students up with local business owners who may be close to retiring. She said the idea would keep bright students in the community after graduation, and would make it less likely that Lawrence would lose a business due to retirement. She also supports creating a new business incubator for small retail businesses, and helping create cooperative purchasing programs for companies.
James Bush said he supports the proposed changes at the library, and wants to look for ways to invest in workforce development programs, such as providing child care for parents who want to take new job opportunities.
Bush and Lance Johnson both said they want the city to get more specific about the type of economic development incentives it will offer, and what companies must do to win approval for a project.
Johnson also said he wants to create a new effort to attract companies that tap into the green energy and sustainable environment markets.
Price Banks said he would like to create a new council of people who have successfully started businesses in Lawrence. The council would offer advice to community leaders on how to make the city more friendly to locally owned companies.
Tom Johnson said he wants to look for ways — perhaps through increases in parking fines or the city’s hotel bed tax — to create a fund to help start-up companies with marketing costs.
Incumbent Mike Amyx said he would like to have Kansas University become an official member in the city’s economic development partnership with the county and the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. Amyx said he wanted to get the university more involved now that a new biosciences incubator building is being constructed on West Campus.
Dennis Constance said he wants the city to take over its own economic development marketing activities — stripping such duties from the chamber — and place more emphasis on the unique quality of life the city has to offer.
Issue: Living wage
The city has a requirement that companies that receive a tax abatement must pay their employees a living wage, which is now $11.44 per hour.
Two candidates have expressed concern that the living wage hinders efforts to attract companies to the community. Bush and Lance Johnson both said they generally believed wages were better controlled by the free market. Both, however, stopped short of saying they would work to repeal the wage requirement.
The other six candidates said they supported keeping the living wage ordinance. Those candidates, however, were split on whether to expand the living wage requirement to cover companies that receive other types of government incentives besides tax abatements.
Cromwell, Tom Johnson, Constance and Klingenberg said they would consider expanding the living wage ordinance in some cases. Amyx and Banks expressed reservations about expanding the ordinance.
Issue: Tax abatements
Two groups also have emerged on the use of tax abatements to try to attract companies to the city.
Banks, Constance and Klingenberg said they had concerns about the use of tax abatements. Klingenberg said she thought their use was overemphasized. Constance said he was “leery” of most types of tax incentives, and Banks said they should be used “very cautiously” because they promote piracy between communities.
The other five candidates said they were open to the continued use of tax abatements. Bush and Tom Johnson, however, said they would push to lower the standard abatement from 10 years to five years. Amyx said he was fine with the existing standards, and wanted to ensure companies were treated equally when they applied. Lance Johnson said he wanted the community to get past the perception that tax abatements were a process for companies to take advantage of the community.
“I don’t know of a business out there that doesn’t spend some money to try and attract a client,” Lance Johnson said. “That’s basically what this is.”