Fairly soon, former and current local city officials should get the message Lawrence is not doing so well as a business center that generates jobs, retail sales and tax revenues and attracts new business and new residents.
We seem to be great at calling for, or demanding, expensive new buildings and programs, but one has to wonder how long the city can sustain this policy when the city is ranked as the nation’s second worst performing small metropolitan area relative to a number of economic measurements.
Apparently, the old adage of living within your means doesn’t apply to Lawrence. On the other hand, perhaps the thinking of past and recent city officials is that you must spend money to make money.
As reported in a Journal-World article earlier this week, a national economic study by the Milken Institute showed Lawrence ranked 178th out of 179 small metropolitan areas in its “Best Performing Cities Index.” In fact Lawrence dropped 79 spots from its 2011 ranking.
Nine different categories were used to determine the rankings: five-year job growth, one-year job growth, five-year wage growth, one-year wage growth, one-year job growth percentage, five-year high-tech GDP growth, one-year high-tech GDP growth, high-tech GDP as part of overall GDP and the concentration of high-tech companies.
According to those who collected and analyzed the data, there are two types of small metro areas that should do well in the study: communities benefiting from the nation’s new natural gas and oil exploration and communities with “high concentrations of public sector employees, especially in prominent universities.” Apparently Lawrence doesn’t even score well among small metro areas with “prominent universities.”
Complacency, complacency, complacency. Time and time again, this writer has said complacency is a deadly mindset because nothing is guaranteed. Lawrence, as well as Kansas University over the past 10 or so years, has been complacent, or lazy, thinking its continued growth and good fortune was almost a guarantee. We had all the necessary ingredients to be, and continue to be, an outstanding university community: good location, good natural resources, ample supplies of water, good transportation services, clean city government, good law enforcement, a major metropolitan area nearby with good airport facilities and large hospitals, and an aggressive, top-rated, state aided university. We had a record of visionary and hard-working city leaders who were interested in only one thing — how to help make Lawrence a better city — along with community-minded public school leaders and chancellors who were powerful and effective not only for the university but for the entire state.
We still have the good location, plenty of water (at least for now) and a good university, although it has slipped a bit in national rankings. In other categories, however, we have failed to keep pace and match, or exceed, what other peer cities have to offer.
But we do know how to spend money: an $18 million library expansion project, a new $40 million KU track and field complex, a new $25 million city recreation center, a new $64 million sewage treatment plant, $37 million for water and sewer projects, a requested $20 million to $40 million for police personnel and facility upgrades and several new multimillion-dollar buildings at KU.
Some of these projects could be classified as necessary, while others are nice but not vital no matter how much proponents claim they are necessary. Why try to save when city leaders are willing to spend big bucks?
For years, Lawrence was the model the rest of the state used to measure growth and economic vitality. National site selection teams scouting locations for new manufacturing plants or major retail operations considered a stop in Lawrence almost a “must.” Times changed, and Lawrence earned the reputation of being an extremely difficult city in which to build or locate new businesses.
Who is at fault? It’s easy to point figures, but there is no single guilty party. Rather, there are a number of factors. In no particular order or priority, consider these possibilities:
• The general public that obviously doesn’t attach much importance to whom they elect to the City Commission, County Commission or school board. Voter turnout in Lawrence is a disgrace, somewhere in the range of 15 to 20 percent. The adage, “You get what you pay for,” could be applied to our various government bodies. If the public doesn’t care, look what happens.
• City Hall.
• Next, what happened to the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce in recent years? It used to be an effective, visible and visionary organization, but something happened. It lost some good people and it lost its drive.
• Or could it be that so many people in Lawrence seem to be so proud of the diversity of opinions here and brag about Lawrence being so different than the rest of the state that it is extremely difficult to gain consensus on anything. How can there be a consensus on what the city does, when 80 percent of the residents don’t have enough interest or passion to vote? Lawrence may be paying a price for being so proud of being different and so liberal.
Not too many years ago, Lawrence enjoyed great positive momentum. There was enthusiasm, excitement and an optimistic attitude and environment. That momentum, once lost, is extremely difficult to reignite.
Leaders in Lawrence and the university “X” number of years ago would be shocked to think or be told that in only a relatively few years, the city and its school system would receive such poor grades relative to other Kansas communities or peer cities in other parts of the country,
How long will Lawrence residents allow this slide to continue?