Proposed economic development strategy puts more focus on startup companies, local food

Growing startup businesses and growing fruits and vegetables are both part of the proposed economic development strategy being put forward by the Lawrence chamber of commerce.

The latest draft of the economic development strategy has added a goal of creating a regional food hub that could serve as a sort of wholesale distribution center for locally grown produce. The plan envisions the hub serving both Douglas County and the entire Kansas City metro area.

“It is clearly something that would develop some jobs and be true economic development,” said County Administrator Craig Weinaug, who envisions the county playing a major role in the planning of a food hub. “It would be a development very much in line with the values of the community.”

Larry McElwain, president and CEO of The Chamber, said he’s recommending adding the project to the community economic development strategy after learning more about the idea from City Commissioner Jeremy Farmer and County Commissioner Nancy Thellman. McElwain said the idea of a food hub has been discussed with the Delaware Tribe of Indians, which owns about 100 acres near the Kansas Turnpike interchange in North Lawrence. McElwain said the idea of that property serving as part of the food hub concept has been discussed, but no agreements have been reached.

“We’re putting our toe in the water on this, and not jumping in the deep end yet,” McElwain said of the chamber’s role. “It is a big, aggressive project, but we think we can help.”

The proposed plan calls for local economic development officials to identify four potential sites for a food hub and to make an assessment of what type of workforce would be needed for the operation of a hub. The plan also calls for the chamber to support private investors in the region.

The economic development plan also includes several other goals:

• Increasing the help provided to startup companies and entrepreneurs. Part of the strategy would involve: creating an entrepreneurship scholarship fund that could provide some small grants to help with start-up expenses; creation of a revolving loan fund to help small businesses with financing; and a venture capital fund to help with larger financial needs. The strategy proposes that government be involved in helping fund the scholarship and revolving loan fund, but that any venture capital fund be funded and managed by the private sector.

• Complete a study that reviews which industries Lawrence and Douglas County would have the most success in attracting to the area. Until the study is completed — which likely would begin in early 2015 — the plan recommends leaders focus their recruitment efforts on companies in either logistics, advanced manufacturing, back office/financial firms, and the biosciences.

Members of the Joint Economic Development Council agreed to allow the draft strategy to be presented to other community groups for feedback. McElwain said he hopes to have the plan approved by the JEDC, the chamber board, the City Commission and the County Commission within the next 45 days.

Council members said they were generally supportive of the plan, especially the greater emphasis on startup and small business assistance.

“It is clearly an opportunity to think differently, and probably smarter, about how we attract and grow jobs in the community,” said City Manager David Corliss, who is a member of the JEDC. “This is different than just trying to land that company with an anonymous name.”