The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, has gotten so much positive press lately, I can understand why the government may not have taken the time to highlight the good news the act has created here in Lawrence.
I'm obviously being facetious about the positive press that has come Obamacare's way lately, but I'm being serious about the boost the act may be giving to the Lawrence economy.
Thanks to the General Dynamics call center in the East Hills Business Park, it appears Lawrence may have several hundred new jobs as a direct result of the Affordable Care Act.
If you remember, we reported back in May that General Dynamics was awarded a $530 million contract to provide customer support for the Affordable Care Act. It was confirmed at the time that the Lawrence call center, which previously has operated under the names Vangent, Pearson, and NCS, would receive new positions as part of the contract. But it wasn't known how many.
I still don't know how many positions have been or will be added at the center, but I've talked to several local leaders who have been led to believe that the impact is very significant.
I've heard estimates range from "more than 500" to approximately 900 new positions at the Lawrence call center. An announcement of 900 new jobs easily would be one of the larger single job announcements in recent Lawrence history.
I've reached out to both General Dynamics and also to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees the contract. But thus far I haven't been able to get any confirmation on the new jobs. So, take the numbers with a grain of salt at the moment.
But there certainly are reasons to think the number of new jobs at the center is substantial. The press release announcing the contract in May estimated 7,000 to 9,000 jobs would be created nationwide by the contract. It estimated the jobs would be housed at about 14 call centers. That would be an average of 500 to 600 new jobs per center, if the jobs are evenly distributed.
An even distribution is probably not the case. One of the few articles I've been able to find about call center hiring was from the newspaper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a U.S. congressman was making a big deal out of 120 new jobs that were added to a General Dynamics call center in Iowa. That article indicated there would be "several thousand jobs" added to General Dynamics call centers in other states.
Another reason to think Lawrence may be a landing spot for a significant number of the new jobs is that the company has the space for them here in Lawrence. According to my understanding, one of General Dynamics' two buildings at East Hills was largely vacant at the time of the contract award.
The final reason to suspect the contract has had a big local impact, though, is more obvious. Drive by the company's parking lot in East Hills, and it sure appears to be a lot fuller than it used to be. In May, General Dynamics had about 650 employees in Lawrence, down from a high of about 1,500 in 2011.
As for the quality of any new jobs at the center, the local leaders I talked to were optimistic they were good middle-level positions for the community. They indicated that because this contract is funded by the federal government that General Dynamics would have to meet certain wage and benefit levels set by the federal government.
There's also optimism that the contract could provide some long-term work. The contract was awarded for one year, but it is renewable for up to nine more years, according to the information released in May.
Based on the current national news, it seems like there should be some good job security with a contract that is responsible for answering questions about Obamacare.
Obviously, I'll let you know if I get any official information from either the company or the federal government.
In other news and notes from around town:
• Mark your calendar for 6 p.m. on Dec. 2 if you are interested in the future of a new transit hub for the city and the university's public transit system. City officials will host a meeting at Fire Station No. 5 at 19th and Iowa to discuss a new proposal to locate the hub near 21st and Iowa streets.
As we reported last month, a new proposal has emerged to place the hub, which will be the main transfer point for the two bus systems, at the northeast corner of 21st and Iowa streets. Originally, city officials were focusing on a site near Ninth and Iowa streets near the The Merc. But I had heard KU officials were more interested in a site closer to campus, and it now appears City Hall officials are ready to adopt that line of thinking as well.
The Dec. 2 meeting is mainly geared toward neighbors of the site, but eventually the decision will affect the entire community, or at least everyone who uses the transit system. Transit officials have told me that a move to 21st and Iowawill require a significant rerouting of buses, and likely will mean a significant change in the amount of service provided to downtown Lawrence.
I'm not sure all those details will be figured out by the Dec. 2 meeting, but it is something to keep an ear open for.
• Another item to keep an eye on with public transit is the idea of compressed natural gas buses. As we reported in August, city commissioners directed staff members to do more research on the feasibility of CNG buses. I believe that research is still underway, but I was at a transit meeting a few weeks ago where the subject came up. It appears staff members believe the challenges of converting the fleet — even gradually — to CNG are significant. The latest estimate for a CNG fueling station that could quickly fill the city's buses now stands at about $2 million, up from a previous estimate of about $1 million. Plus transit officials expressed concern that switching to CNG would be a financial gamble. Even though CNG is significantly cheaper than diesel fuel today, there is a concern that as demand grows for CNG, so too will the price. Ultimately, city commissioners will have to weigh in on this issue too because the transit system will need to replace buses one way or another. I'll keep you posted.