“New federal numbers that measure the overall size of a city’s economy found that Lawrence in 2008 ranked last among 34 cities in the Plains region in terms of per capita gross domestic product.” — Journal-World, Sept. 25
In speaking of that dismal fact, Roger Zalneraitis, economic development coordinator for the city, misses the elephant in the room and has this to say about Lawrence’s failure to bounce back after the economic downturn caused by the terrorist attacks of 9/11: “We’ve just kind of sat there. The question is why. It is a tough question to crack, but that is clearly what is going on.”
He continues to miss the elephant in the room when he adds, “We’ve had virtually no job growth for this decade. We just haven’t seen the increases in jobs or wages. We’ve fallen behind the rest of the region in that regard.”
In 1990, I had the opportunity to write the history of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, 1878-1990. I updated that history in 1999, just before Chamber President Gary Toebben left for greener pastures. The chamber has been instrumental in a great many assets enjoyed by Douglas County residents (e.g., Lone Star Lake, Centennial Park, Allen Fieldhouse) as well as providing jobs during the Great Depression and repairing rifts in the community after the destructive events (two citizen fatalities, street riots and burning of KU’s Student Union) in the 1970s. But mainly the history I researched showed a long record of attracting good jobs to the area (among them, Reuter Organ, Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant, Hallmark).
A Journal-World editorial on Aug. 12, 1999, cited that during Toebben’s 18 years as chamber president the population grew from 53,000 to almost 80,000 and jobs grew from 28,000 to about 49,000. However, that was then and this is now.
Those of us on the Horizon 2020 Land Use Task Force got an earful about jobs from people who advocated no, slow or smart growth, including one person who suggested we put a cap on our population. That person, then relatively new to our city, would not have been on the task force if Lawrence had capped its population at 53,000.
One man stated emphatically, “We want only high-paying, high-tech jobs.” I replied that not everyone qualifies for a high-paying, high-tech job, then told a story about when Westvaco (later FMC, Astaris and now ICL) approached the city council, on which my father served, about locating in North Lawrence. A group of opponents came to the council meeting and stated bluntly, “Lawrence is a college town. We don’t want the lunch-box trade.”
I suggested that the man advocating only high-paying, high-tech jobs had just found a politically correct way of saying the same thing those earlier opponents of economic development had said. Lawrence is fortunate to have ICL with its good-paying jobs and excellent benefits, but I wonder if a similar plant would be welcome today. Frankly, I doubt it. Someone always would find a reason it should not locate here and — unlike the city officials who welcomed Westvaco, recognizing its benefit to the entire community — recent officials appear to be swayed by the strident voices of a small number of opponents.
Face it, folks. The elephant in the room is that Lawrence is unfriendly to business (Remember American Eagle? The expensive Wal-Mart battle that the city should have known it could not win?). Although city leaders note that Lawrence is suffering because of a 39 percent drop in construction activity during the last eight years, the city also is unfriendly to the construction trade as evident by the unnecessary bureaucratic delays, additional fees and land extractions that drive up prices for buyers. Our city and the people who live here — job seekers, taxpayers and home buyers — are paying the price for our leaders’ lack of foresight.
During that long ago time when many businesses were locating in Lawrence, both chamber and city officials recognized that not all businesses were good for the community — a carbon black plant comes to mind — and turned them away. But most of the businesses in recent years that were forced away, or did not try to locate here because of Lawrence’s inhospitable reputation, would have been assets to the community and provided good jobs for many Lawrence job seekers.
Those long ago forward-thinking city officials bequeathed us an economically healthy, well-maintained city for our enjoyment. What sort of city will future citizens inherit?