Generally speaking, one of the important ingredients of a growing, forward-looking, prosperous community, no matter what its size, is a solid chamber of commerce, or some organization with the mission of promoting and championing the economic development of the community.
Over the years Lawrence has had a checkered history of various degrees of success in the leadership and success of its chamber of commerce. Sometimes it’s been a matter of the level of leadership and commitment of those who have served as members of the board of directors. Sometimes it’s been a matter of who has been the president or manager of the chamber and other times the level of success of the chamber has been determined by officials in City Hall and those serving as city commissioners.
Lawrence seems to be continually involved in the growth-no growth debate, the involvement of various neighborhood groups, and now groups or individuals who grade the excellence of the soil adjacent to the city to determine whether industry or manufacturing should be allowed to build on specific sites.
Now there is serious discussion about changing the historic role of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber officials have hired a new president and CEO. Greg Williams is a “certified economic developer” who has compiled an impressive record in Missouri and headed the Springfield Chamber for 15 years.
This has prompted a small group of city, county and chamber officials to propose a significant change in the role of the chamber and creation of a new “Joint Economic Development Council.”
The chamber would be relegated to taking care of the usual and/or traditional chamber functions such as ribbon-cutting ceremonies, membership drives and making sure Christmas season lights are on up and down Massachusetts Street. The real heavy lifting would be placed in the hands of the new Economic Development Council — even more specifically in the hands of a three-person executive committee composed of the Lawrence city manager, the county administrator and the chamber CEO.
They would be supported by an economic council to supervise a separate budget (from both private and public funds) to pay for Council efforts; make budget requests from both the city and county, and to recommend economic development policies. Those on this committee would include representatives from KU, the chair of the chamber, a city commissioner, a county commissioner, someone from the local bioscience and business technology program at KU, and three representatives from the business community appointed by the chamber CEO. Administrators from Eudora and Baldwin City would serve as nonvoting members.
Looks good, sounds good and appears to be politically correct and safe.
But it obviously is designed to neuter the chamber of commerce and place the real power in the hands of the new council’s executive committee. And inasmuch as city managers and county administrators serve at the pleasure of city commissioners and county commissioners, it still will be members of the City Commission and County Commission who will be making the decisions.
Also, it is interesting to note some of those in the proposed senior and power positions also played a significant role in past years in turning down major industries, companies and/or employers who wanted to come to Lawrence to provide jobs, attract retail customers to Lawrence and add to the city’s tax revenues.
It is hoped the chamber’s new president and CEO is a great success and can play a significant role in getting Lawrence back to its position of leadership in the state in attracting new business, new industry, new residents and re-energizing the city.
But how will the new development council deal with the long-standing and obviously powerful neighborhood groups and others who have opposed healthy growth and development in past years?
This is a particularly interesting question when some of those who will be serving in major positions in the new joint economic development structure have not been champions of past efforts to attract and bring solid retail and industry to the city. Have they changed their colors in order to assume an even more powerful position? Will politics at the city and county level continue to determine Lawrence’s future?
Best wishes to Greg Williams. Lawrence needs to regain its position as a progressive, visionary leader and a great place to live, work and play.