Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles highlighting issues in the Lawrence City Commission race.
There’s a reason candidates for the Lawrence City Commission seemingly are always talking about jobs: Douglas County had fewer jobs in 2010 than it did in 2001.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 46,361 jobs located in Douglas County through June of 2010 (the latest numbers available). That’s about 200 fewer jobs than during the same time period in 2001.
The state as a whole is in the same boat — it has lost about 2 percent of its jobs. But there are some Kansas counties, such as Johnson and Riley, that have bucked the trend and become job stars in the state.
Douglas County isn’t one of them, and Lawrence City Commission candidates have taken notice.
But what do they intend to do about it? At first blush, all of the candidates can sound the same on the issue. After all, no one wins a City Commission election saying they want fewer jobs in the community.
Differences do emerge, though, as candidates talk about the issue in more depth. The Journal-World discussed economic development topics with each of the candidates last week. Here’s a look at what each had to say.
Alstrom, a Lawrence architect, is the only candidate in the field who has expressed significant reservations about the city’s decision to take over ownership of the environmentally blighted former Farmland Industries plant on the eastern edge of the city.
“I would have liked to have seen less city involvement in that process,” Alstrom said. “My fear is that we get stuck with a big cost or a big liability.”
Alstrom, though, said he does agree that the 467-acre former fertilizer plant is an eyesore and needs to be cleaned up. He also said he’s in agreement with the city’s plan to convert the property into an industrial/business park.
Alstrom also disagrees with those who say Lawrence has had a “business unfriendly” attitude in the past. As an architect, Alstrom said he’s seen regulations in lots of communities that are tougher to deal with than Lawrence’s.
“To expect no constraints upon business is not a rational approach,” Alstrom said. “I don’t think our constraints are that bad. I think a lot of the talk about being business unfriendly is rhetoric. We have to have some constraints but still promote healthy growth.”
On other topics, Alstrom:
• Believes the community did err when it failed to close the deal to land an American Eagle Outfitters Warehouse project that was slated to be built near the East Hills Business Park. The American Eagle project was proposed during the beginning of the last decade, but it is getting lots of talk on this year’s campaign trail. The warehouse eventually was built in Ottawa after significant opposition arose to a requested tax abatement and the wages proposed by the company.
• Believes offering tax abatements and other economic development incentives to companies is generally reasonable, as long as city policies measuring costs versus benefits are weighed.
“When you look at the entire city budget and what these incentives may cost, it is really very little,” Alstrom said.
• Wants to do a better job of reaching out to Johnson County entrepreneurs to determine if there’s potential for them to be involved in Lawrence projects.
Carter, a local financial adviser, stresses that Lawrence leaders must be flexible when considering future economic development projects.
Carter said he wants to at least discuss the possibility of removing the “living wage” requirement that currently is attached to the city’s tax abatement policy.
“I think we absolutely have to revisit it,” Carter said. “I’m not saying it has to change, but I want to get comfortable that the living wage idea is still one that makes sense.”
Carter is supportive of the city’s decision to take over the Farmland site, but he said he wants to be flexible in determining how it will develop. He is proposing that the city develop at least three sets of plans for the site, and then actively shop the plans to partners that could make them a reality. He also said he would consider significant commercial development for parts of the property, an idea that the current City Commission has balked at.
“I definitely have heard about the shortage of quality industrial sites, but I still would be open to listening to whatever folks think will bring us the biggest bang for our buck at that site,” Carter said.
On other issues, Carter:
• Is “very much in favor” of efforts to attract industrial projects to the area near the Lecompton interchange on Interstate 70. He said its access to I-70 makes the area a good fit for future industrial development.
• Expressed, as all the candidates did, support for the city’s efforts to attract more bioscience companies. But he said the community needs more technical training facilities for jobs that don’t require a college degree.
• Wants the city to develop more relationships with leaders in university communities that have successfully been adding jobs.
“We have to get outside of our own world here and look at some of the best practices elsewhere,” Carter said.
Dever, the owner of an environmental consulting firm and the only incumbent seeking re-election, said some of Lawrence’s job struggles have stemmed from the community being focused more on residential development than on economic development.
“I think for awhile we were focused more on residents than on providing residents a place to work,” Dever said.
He believes the current commission has restored a focus to economic development. He was a supporter of the city’s decision to take over the Farmland site and to partner with KU and others on a new bioscience incubator. He thinks the partnership with KU is critical to success.
“In the past the city didn’t focus enough on building a partnership with the University of Kansas,” Dever said. “I think we’ve taken big steps with limited resources to build partnerships for businesses to grow. It is like any type of investment. You have to start from the ground up. But we’ve laid the foundation and now we just need to start building it out.”
On other issues, Dever:
• Believes being able to offer financial incentives to companies is an important part of the process. He said the community has to think beyond tax abatements. He believes offering companies dollars to provide training for its employees is a good strategy because well-trained employees will benefit the community even if the company does leave in future years.
• Thinks the community may have sent a message that it is not interested in many types of blue-collar jobs by opposing the American Eagle project in the last decade. He said the city needs to combat that image.
• Voted in favor of annexations opening up the area around the Lecompton interchange for industrial development.
Machell, a human resources director for an Overland Park company, said it is important for city commissioners to set the right expectations for economic development.
“The City Commission needs to set the tone,” Machell said. “We need to communicate that we want a process that does more to facilitate business than to regulate it. There needs to be a balance there, but you have to look at a policy and say, ‘How can I meet the spirit of the policy and still accomplish the project?’”
Machell believes the community at times has sent poor messages about how it views the importance of jobs. In particular, Machell has criticized those who labeled the proposed jobs at the American Eagle warehouse project as “dead-end jobs.”
“They were $8-an-hour jobs and people were calling them dead-end jobs and people were saying ‘hell no,’” Machell recalls of the debate surrounding the project. “That was short-term thinking. I don’t believe in dead-end jobs. Most any job we bring into the city will have a positive impact on the city over time.”
On other issues, Machell:
• Characterized the city’s decision to take over the former Farmland Industries site as “exactly the right decision.”
• Believes tax abatements and other incentives are “going to be pretty important” in trying to attract new companies to town. But he said he does support tying tax abatements to specific performance measures the company must meet.
• Wants to lead an effort on the City Commission to recruit community colleges or private institutions that can provide technical training.
“I think that would be incredibly attractive to a lot of employers,” Machell said.
Schumm, a Lawrence restaurant owner and former city commissioner, is a major reason why the American Eagle project is brought up frequently on the campaign trail.
In 2000, Schumm ran an unsuccessful campaign to win a seat on the Douglas County Commission. A major part of his campaign was opposition to the American Eagle project. In a campaign ad, he called the proposed American Eagle jobs “low-wage, dead-end jobs.”
Today, he says he maybe would have framed the issue differently, but that his opinion on the project hasn’t changed. He said the jobs were not offering high enough wages to support a family and that the company was asking for a tax abatement that was significantly larger than what was standard for the time. To top it off, he said, the project would have taken prime agricultural ground out of production.
“There are a lot of people in town who say any type of job is a good job,” Schumm said. “I’m not opposed to any job that is in the marketplace, but when you subsidize it, that’s a different matter.”
Schumm said his record as a city commissioner for eight years shows that he voted for far more economic development projects than he voted against, but he said there’s a point where the incentives and subsidies become too much. He said generally any tax abatement higher than 50 percent is going to be hard-pressed to benefit the community. He said recent tax abatements given to Berry Plastics, both of which exceeded 50 percent, likely were too generous.
“I always come back to the fact that somebody is paying for this, and it is the taxpayer,” Schumm said. “I think the tax rate is about as high as people can stomach right now. I’m really trying to stay in tune with the taxpayer.”
On other issues, Schumm:
• Believes the city is “going in the right direction” with its “strong emphasis” on biotechnology and partnerships with KU.
• Supports the city’s actions to take over the Farmland site, and hopes it can be develop much like the adjacent East Hills Business Park.
• Disagrees, generally, with people who say the city has been unfriendly to business.
“I believe that we are business friendly and that we are accommodating,” Schumm said. “I believe that the people who say we are business unfriendly probably are doing more damage than good. But if there are parts of the process that are obsolete or broken, we need to fix them or do away with them. But there are some people who don’t want any regulations ever for any reason. That is never going to happen.”