If an election were held in Lawrence with voters asked to determine the kind of city they want Lawrence to be, what would they say? And how many residents would take the time to vote? Based on recent City Commission and school board elections, a voter turnout of 20 percent is considered pretty good. What an embarrassment!
What priorities would local voters express in such a poll or election? What would be the result if every adult was eligible to vote? Would the outcome be different if everyone, regardless of age, could cast a ballot?
Issues getting high priority probably would include good schools, ample and varied job opportunities, good clean government, a healthy environment, numerous recreational facilities, a good mix of ages, open green spaces, good housing in a variety of price ranges and a vibrant retail community.
Such results would represent a pretty standard set of expectations, and Lawrence measures up fairly well across the board on these matters.
However, in today’s competitive society, can a city grow and excel by accepting “fairly well” on its scorecard? Shouldn’t Lawrence residents have the desire and goal to be the best in the state in all the categories mentioned above?
There’s no reason Lawrence residents shouldn’t want the best K-12 school system in the state. Lawrence once had one of the state’s healthiest growth rates, but now it lags behind that of many communities. Retail sales are not as good as they should be, and there are too many vacant storefronts on Massachusetts Street. Far too many retail sales and sales tax dollars are going to nearby shopping areas in Wyandotte and Johnson counties.
Recreation facilities are OK but not great; the city can always use more parks and attractive open spaces. The presence of Kansas University keeps the overall population demographics fairly well spread out, but does the city offer enough attractive jobs to keep young people in Lawrence after they graduate?
A good number of local residents want the city to be better in many ways, but, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a constant, steady vision or a committed path on how to achieve challenging goals.
Consider some recent events. The city turns down a major retailer, Lowe’s, with close to 200 employees, a project that would have created hundreds of jobs to build the store and drawn or kept shoppers in Lawrence, adding sales tax dollars to the community.
At almost the same time, the city is quick to beat its chest on landing a “high-tech” company with a handful of employees, a company that needs special financial incentives from the city.
And the community cannot find suitable office space for a growing engineering firm with 65 well-paid engineers, so the firm moves to Olathe even though there are empty office buildings in Lawrence.
In fact, goals and emphases change with about every change in the City Commission. For example, one group of commissioners may set wooing environmentally attractive industry and business to the city as their primary goal; others want to focus on how to attract more retail stores to hold tax dollars in the community, and yet another commission may decide to try to promote Lawrence as an excellent retirement community.
City goals seem to zigzag from commission to commission. Recent history has shown that one or two single-minded commissioners can sway the thinking and voting of their fellow commissioners. Personal goals and sometimes selfish interests can creep into the actions and policies of those serving as commissioners rather than having decisions based on what is best for the overall community.
Also, it is difficult to understand how commissioners can be hoodwinked by what might be called con artists on any number of matters.
City commissioners sometimes seem too quick to accept information or proposals as facts, without further investigation or verification. The current possibility of allowing a private company to use part of a new fiber-optic cable to be laid along 23rd Street is a perfect example.
The private company offered the city $30,000 if the city would allow it to access the fiber. The company also offered to pay a certain franchise fee. Several city commissioners acted as if this was a terrific offer and they were ready to sign a deal.
No thought was given to the value of the hookup or what would be a more equitable offer. The city didn’t discuss the possibility of opening up the matter for a competitive bid, and there is no proposed business model. What do these commissioners know about high-speed cable or about the value it should demand?
Lawrence is in serious need of strong, positive and honest leadership. Just like the university, it has been floating and/or treading water for far too long — two rudderless ships drifting with the tide and winds.
A single, outstanding leader or a small group of properly motivated, honest, knowledgeable individuals can make a huge difference, but, unfortunately, Lawrence lacks true leaders and doesn’t have a plan or the commitment to make Lawrence a model for the rest of the state.
How much cooperation is there between the city and the university to try to address major problems or needs? Does the city rely too much on hiring pricey out-of-town consultants rather than taking advantage of knowledgeable and skilled KU faculty members?
Merely “getting by,” accepting mediocrity and being complacent about how things are will not allow Lawrence to make the most of its many opportunities.