Editorial: Let’s raise both funds and enthusiasm for economic development

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

It is worth trumpeting that businesses and organizations in Lawrence and Douglas County have come together to pledge more than $2.1 million to economic development efforts over the next five years. That amount already is about a half million dollars more than the last fundraising campaign, and this new campaign has just launched.

But let’s take that thinking one step further: Douglas County businesses — after being hammered by a pandemic in ways previously hard to fathom — already have given more in the first days of this campaign than they gave in the entirety of the last campaign, when the economy faced no challenge nearly as steep as the pandemic.

In a way, that is heartening. It is a real sign that the private sector is taking more seriously the need to actively promote economic development in Douglas County. Despite Lawrence’s many attributes, we can’t just put our quest for greater prosperity on cruise control.

Also heartening, though, is that some of the initiatives proposed in this latest fundraising campaign — which is being run by The Chamber and the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence and Douglas County — look a bit different from past versions. For example, the group has committed to use some of the $2.5 million it hopes to raise to create 250 new affordably priced day care slots for infants and toddlers of Douglas County workers.

It is a recognition that economic development needs to be about more than just marketing to companies that may want to locate here. It also must be about removing barriers to help people who already live here become better employed and have brighter futures. In that same vein, the campaign includes initiatives related to financing for women and minority-owned businesses, and workforce training assistance for people who would be good candidates to fill highly needed jobs.

There are more traditional initiatives too, related to marketing and building relationships with site selectors and others who can steer projects our way. Those also are important, but don’t discount the need for the other, more people-based initiatives. The idea of economic development does not have enough broad community support in Lawrence. For too many, the phrase is simply synonymous with incentives and tax breaks for companies. Those incentives, when used right, can be a great investment for a community. But now is not the time to have that debate.

Instead, now is the time to build a broader base of support for economic development by showing people that it can be much more than just incentives and chasing after the next distribution center that wants to locate along a highway.

That image building needs to be done not just with the general public, but also with some government leaders. While it has been weeks ago, an action by a majority of the Douglas County Commission was disheartening. As we reported, the commission cut funding to the Lawrence Bioscience and Business Technology Center on KU’s West Campus. This came at a time when KU is making more progress than it has in years to really turn its research into an economic boon for Lawrence. KU and KU Endowment seem really serious about building KU Innovation Park on the West Campus. The idea is successful businesses who want to be close to the talent of KU researchers and students will fill new buildings that are basically next door or integrated into the prime research spots of the university.

The cut to BTBC isn’t enough to create a fatal wound for the organization or KU’s plans. But listening to the County Commission’s conversation on the topic, it was clear two of the three commissioners have reservations about supporting economic development initiatives.

Instead of getting mad about it, economic development leaders should work to convince them otherwise. It seems like there should be an opening there. After all, Douglas County government is getting more than $20 million in pandemic relief funding and has a local cash reserve fund that is growing, yet commissioners felt the need to approve a property tax rate increase. Perhaps more economic development could have prevented the need for that.

But right now, the best way to convince them and others is for businesses to speak with their wallets. Show that the private sector is willing to pay its share to help create future prosperity. Those actions probably can speak louder than any words at this point. Here’s hoping that the new fundraising campaign meets its $2.5 million goal, that it funds great initiatives and that it spurs a new wave of enthusiasm about what Douglas County’s future holds.


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