Editorial: Let’s be creative in spending Douglas County’s federal pandemic funds

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

It has been said that orange construction cones are a sign of progress. If so, downtown Lawrence is going through a lot of progress right now.

If you haven’t been to downtown for a couple of weeks, you likely haven’t seen Massachusetts Street lined with the cones. It is one of the end results of the city’s plan to temporarily change the parking on the street from saw-toothed to parallel in an effort to create more room for businesses to expand outdoors.

It is hard to imagine that the current look of downtown is what people had in mind when the plan was approved. It has an unappealing feel of a construction zone. But it also is hard to be too critical of city officials for trying to do something to help downtown merchants and restaurants.

Lawrence will be well-served if we can keep that attitude and expand it far beyond downtown. Douglas County soon will have an unprecedented opportunity to fund bold initiatives for the future. As the Journal-World has reported, Douglas County government is set to receive about $25 million in federal funds as part of the relief package related to the virus.

The funds certainly will be welcome to shore up some immediate needs in government funds that have been hit by a downturn in sales tax revenues. As this page already has argued, some of the funds also should be used to create a more robust public testing program for all of Douglas County. The rising virus counts locally really demand that public health officials take a new approach on testing and, most likely, contact tracing.

But community leaders really should commit a good portion of the funds to developing the infrastructure, amenities or resources that will position Douglas County for prosperity for years to come. To do so, though, will require outside-the-box thinking. That is a skill we should excel at in Douglas County, with our highly educated population. We should be the creative capital of the Great Plains, but that attribute hasn’t always shone through.

How can we creatively spend these federal dollars? Here’s one example to consider: Create a multimillion-dollar grant fund to help every locally owned retail business in the county create or greatly enhance their online retailing efforts.

The retail economies of places like Lawrence face a real threat from online competitors located far away. Ultimately that will hurt us all, as a loss of local retailers will mean a loss of jobs and potentially degradation and blight of the commercial districts those retailers now occupy.

One of the lasting impacts of the pandemic likely will be an acceleration of online shopping. Many consumers have tried it during the pandemic, and many will continue to make it part of their normal routines once the pandemic has passed. Local retail communities that are going to be able to best thrive in that new environment are those that have the basic technology infrastructure in place.

Local retailers need serious, sophisticated online stores. A corner of eBay probably isn’t going to cut it. Such infrastructure comes with upfront costs that can be prohibitive for small retailers. It is a valid role — albeit an uncomfortable one — for government to play. Retailers add to the economic health of a community. Government already is trying to help with projects like the rearranged parking in downtown and the suspension of some zoning and planning regulations that give businesses more flexibility in their operations during the pandemic. Those are fairly minor efforts, but they can be the opening that allows us to think bigger.

Whether it is this grant program for retailers or some other idea, we should think bigger during this pandemic. Crises have been known to produce positive changes that go well beyond the crisis at hand. The Civil War played a role in the creation of a national university system, and the Cold War played a role in the creation of our national interstate system, for example.

It has been said that you should never let a good crisis go to waste. That seems crass. Perhaps a better saying is that a crisis should never just solve one problem. Yes, controlling and killing this virus needs to be job No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 in this country.

But one thing about a crisis is that it forces us into a problem-solving mood. We should stay in that mood as long as we can because there is much to be solved, even here locally.


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