A diverse group of about 120 area residents agreed on at least one point Thursday night — Lawrence needs to increase its efforts to attract jobs to the community.
A “Community Forum on Job Growth” brought out a larger than expected crowd to Lawrence High School where everybody from developers to neighborhood activists talked about how to bring more jobs to the city.
“The purpose of the exercise tonight was to show people what they have in common,” said Tom Kern, president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. “Now we want to build a strategy around that. We’re taking the approach of let’s build a policy around what people agree on.”
At first glance, a clear-cut point of agreement was a need for the community to do more to capitalize on research conducted at Kansas University.
After a series of roundtable discussions, the audience came up with seven areas of strength that the community has. Audience members were then asked to vote on which areas should be high priorities when it comes to crafting a job creation strategy.
Audience members placed dots by each topic, and Kern said it was clear that the KU research component had the most votes, although it will be about a week before organizers of the event formally tally all the votes. Each audience member had 10 dots, so there were more than 1,000 votes to count.
Audience members also listed seven areas of weakness that the community has. Identifying which category led the pack there was more difficult. Kern said at least three areas had significant numbers of votes: Lack of a communitywide vision; City Hall’s business environment; and a general lack of competitive spirit when it comes to economic development.
The organizers of the forum — which included the chamber of commerce, the city, the county, the League of Women Voters and the Journal-World — will put out a report summarizing the vote tallies for each of the topics in about a week, Kern said.
In about 60 days, Kern hopes the organizers will be able to use the information from the meeting to present a proposed job creation policy for elected leaders and community members to consider.
Several elected leaders who attended the forum said they believed the event was a good first step.
“I’m hopeful that in the end it will show some consensus on priorities,” said County Commissioner Jim Flory.
Here’s a look at the seven strengths listed by audience members:
• Educational opportunities in the area;
• Geographic location;
• High quality of life offered;
• Potential to capitalize on KU technology and research;
• A vibrant downtown;
• Educated work force;
• Access to a well-developed transportation network.
Here’s a look at the seven limitations that were identified by audience members:
• A lack of technical training for workers;
• City Hall’s climate toward businesses and a cumbersome development code;
• An overall anti-business perception;
• A lack of competitive spirit on economic development matters;
• A lack of long-term planning for the community;
• An imbalance between the cost-of-living and the wages paid to employees;
• A general lack of vision and leadership.
Attendees also were presented with several sets of statistics about job growth in the county. Roger Zalneraitis, economic development coordinator for the city, said that Douglas County has lagged the state in terms of job growth for much of the decade, but has seen the downturn accelerate recently.
“We lost more jobs in this county than any other county in the state in 2008,” Zalneraitis said. “In 2008 the story here began to change pretty drastically.”