A growing engineering firm’s plans to leave Lawrence for a new building in Olathe is a major disappointment for the local economic development community.
If there’s any possibility of keeping EN Engineering in Lawrence, local officials should go for it. If not, perhaps there are lessons to be learned.
City, county and Lawrence Chamber of Commerce officials say they worked hard to barter a deal to keep the company in Lawrence. EN Engineering, the former Wheatland Systems, currently provides 65 high-paying jobs and plans to hire as many as 20 or 30 additional employees in the foreseeable future.
That meant they needed more space than they currently had at 2110 Del. Plans to expand at that location didn’t work out. The company looked at the possibility of a new building in east Lawrence, but some problems apparently surfaced with an agreement to extend their current lease while a new building was constructed.
In the end, local officials appear to be taken by surprise by what they saw as EN’s sudden decision to go to Olathe. As County Administrator Craig Weinaug put it, “we never were really given the opportunity to work out a specific deal.”
In the current economy, it’s extremely difficult to attract new businesses to the community. That’s why it becomes even more important to keep the businesses we have and try to facilitate their plans for the future. If dealings with EN are now water under the bridge, local officials need to look at what they might do differently in the future.
EN’s decision to move apparently seemed sudden. Was that the case, or would better communication or quicker action by local officials have made a difference? Chamber officials said they had been working with EN for about 10 months.
The lease issue also raises questions worth discussing. The owner of the 2110 Del. building wanted a two-year lease from EN. That would be ample time for the company to complete a move, meaning the owner could be confident the building would be available for a new tenant at the end of that lease. EN wanted a shorter lease. If local officials had agreed to pay off the rest of the two-year lease if EN moved early, could a deal have been reached? It’s understandable that officials were hesitant to earmark public money to pay a local landlord, but the $30,000 that would have been needed to pay the lease for six months wouldn’t be unusually high for an incentives package to keep or attract a local business.
City Commissioners Mike Dever and Mike Amyx both said they would have liked to at least discuss that option. As Dever said, “creative packages sometimes need to be put together.”
Local economic development officials should see the loss of EN Engineering as a major blow. If nothing can be done to reverse the decision, they also should see it as a call to revisit their dealings with the company and consider how they might be more proactive or more creative when facing a similar situation in the future.