In today’s technological age, it probably is not wise to brag about the quality of your Rolodex. It makes people think you’ve dropped your iPhone in the toilet. But whether you have them stored on your smartphone or on a crumpled up cocktail napkin, it still is important to know who to contact and how to do it. In the ultra competitive industry of economic development, it is vital.
Lawrence officially has a new leader of economic development that comes loaded with a ton of contacts. I sat down for a good conversation with Steve Kelly on just his third day on the job as the new vice president of economic development for the Lawrence chamber of commerce.
To be clear, Kelly did not brag about his Rolodex. Kelly may end up being one of Lawrence’s most important salesmen. His job is to interact with and help close the deals with new and expanding companies that will produce new jobs in Lawrence and Douglas County. But I got the impression that Kelly is the type of salesman who doesn’t oversell anything. Instead, he’s the type who will always remember your name, where you met, and figure out a way to make a connection whenever your paths cross.
While he didn’t tout his connections, I know there are many in the community who are excited about them. Kelly came to The Chamber after having served as the deputy secretary of the Kansas Department of Commerce and director of business and community development for the agency. When asked, he can rattle off a list of big deals he has been a part of: the Mars candy plant in Topeka; the Kansas Speedway and surrounding retail development; General Motors expansions in Kansas City; and many aviation deals in Wichita.
The complete list would be much longer. He had been with the Department of Commerce for 26 years. He was the guy who always survived the change in administrations. Political appointees have short shelf lives, but deal makers last longer than the fat-free mayonnaise in my refrigerator.
Lawrence has had experienced economic development leaders in the past decade, but often their experience was in different regions of the country. Not only does Kelly know the players in Kansas, he’s lived in Lawrence for nearly 30 years.
Economic development and the jobs its produces are always important, so it would be hyperbole for me to say the community is at some sort of crossroads. But this is an important hire for The Chamber. There has been a lot of turnover in both this position and the Chamber CEO and president position. It is not coincidental that the turnover has coincided with some fairly stagnant job growth numbers over the last decade.
As I’ve said before, I like to share some of the conversations I have with community leaders, so here is a look at three takeaways from my meeting with Kelly:
It is a common refrain that Lawrence has a poor reputation in broader economic development circles. What you hear is that projects are more difficult to do here than they are elsewhere. I’ve heard that refrain through both good times and bad, so I am never sure what to make of it. Business executives, I suspect, always want to move faster.
But there is no doubt that such a reputation could be damaging to Lawrence's and Douglas County’s efforts to grow jobs. Kelly was diplomatic about the topic but certainly didn’t dismiss the complaints.
“I think there probably is some work to do in that area,” Kelly said of Lawrence's reputation in economic development circles. Some of that commentary is out there. It is not a real large group of folks who work on these projects. There are a lot of conversations. Both good words and bad words get around pretty quickly.
“I think there has been a perception that Lawrence hasn’t been as easy or as amenable or as welcoming as some other communities have.”
Kelly, though, also said that Lawrence is a well-planned community. It hasn’t traditionally done things “willy-nilly.”
“One of the reasons Lawrence is cool is maybe because the community hasn’t done some of these things that people sought,” Kelly said. “But I would say there is a perception out there that there are easier places to do things than Lawrence.”
I’m confident that there is a subset of the population who has no problem with that perception. But that reputation comes with a question: Will it hold Lawrence back from being a jobs leader?
I didn’t ask Kelly that one. It was only his third day on the job. But he knows what he has signed up for.
“The world is pretty competitive right now,” Kelly said.
VenturePark, the city-owned industrial park on the eastern edge of the city, opened for business in October 2014. The park, though, is still seeking its first tenant.
Menards, the large home-improvement retailer, has announced plans to construct at the park a center that manufactures and distributes certain building materials. But the company has put those plans on indefinite hold. I don’t have much of an update for you on that, other than chamber officials previously have said they were hopeful the company would re-evaluate after the presidential election. I do know that Kelly has worked with the Menards folks in his state capacity, and I’m sure they are among the first calls he is making in his new job.
Kelly said, despite the park being empty, there is no reason to second guess the city’s decision to proceed with Venture Park. It is right next door to the East Hills Business Park, it has easy access to the recently completed South Lawrence Trafficway, it has a rail spur, and it was on old industrial property that was going to need to be cleaned up regardless. (You may remember, it was the old Farmland fertilizer plant.)
“I think the decision they made at the time was a very good decision,” Kelly said.
In terms of what the public’s expectations should be for the park in 2017, that’s a tough one to answer.
“It is not something you can put a magic timeline on,” Kelly said. “If it hasn’t happened by a certain time, you can’t say it is a failure. I don’t think it works that way. I have seen enough examples to know that getting over that first hurdle is typically the hardest one. Once you get that first tenant, it usually takes care of itself.”
Regardless, I still think it is an important year for VenturePark. At some point, an empty business park becomes demoralizing. I think a key question will be how aggressive the city is willing to become with incentives to get over that first hurdle. It is worth remembering that through the Farmland bankruptcy process, the city got the land for free, plus received a multimillion-dollar trust fund to clean up the property. Granted, the city has spent millions on the roads and infrastructure at the site, but the deal the city got on the property may allow it to be fairly aggressive.
Kelly did not weigh in much on the new policy the city has adopted as it relates to economic development incentives. He said he hasn’t studied it enough to offer specific comments. But he did talk about how incentives are an “important” piece of the puzzle in attracting a company, with other big pieces including workforce availability, workforce training and the “general climate or vibe” of the community.
“When you are changing a policy like that, you want to understand what you are trying to accomplish, and then be very diligent in trying to determine what the unintended consequences may be.”
The policy changes at City Hall, though, are just one item to keep an eye on with the City Commission. City Manager Tom Markus has talked about the need for the City Commission to do more big-picture, strategic planning, and 2017 seems to be the year that is going to happen. Such a process will encompass many topics, but certainly jobs and economic development will be a part of the discussion.
It will be interesting to see what type of vision the community comes up with for economic development. Throw into the mix that at the same time the University of Kansas will be getting a new chancellor. Some of KU’s strategic planning has opened the door for the West Campus to become more business and entrepreneurial oriented. If the next chancellor has a passion for that, an exciting plan could be crafted. Imagine if Lawrence’s next business park was on West Campus, where companies that want to have close access to talent among the university’s faculty and students could locate.
Kelly didn’t get into any of those specifics, but I know forging relationships with the university the city and the county is a priority for him.
“We can sit here and talk about and know about a lot of our assets, but what’s important is to have a real plan on how to take advantage of those attributes that set us apart or give us an advantage,” he said.