County cuts funding for group bringing high-tech jobs to town; future discussion likely about county’s role in eco devo funding

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Construction work is underway on an expansion of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center in KU's West District. The two pillars in the background is the primary site for the expansion, which is expected to house 250 employees from various technology companies upon completion.

There’s long been a certain amount of friction involved with most economic development issues in Lawrence. But the one category of projects that historically has had a smooth road to approval were those that focused on high-tech, high-paying jobs.

It is now worth asking whether that road has become bumpy too.

Douglas County commissioners on Wednesday agreed to cut $50,000 in funding from the Bioscience & Technology Business Center for the 2022 budget year. That ended up being a less significant cut than the $100,000 that county commissioners were discussing on Tuesday.

The significance, though, probably is best measured in sentiment, not dollars.

The sentiment on Wednesday included some commissioners openly wondering whether part of the money they spend on trying to attract high-wage bioscience jobs — the county this year is spending a little more than $400,000 on the BTBC — would be better spent on trying to foster more blue-collar job opportunities.

“I’m interested in programs that are looking at all the different pathways toward economic development, and not just high paying,” Commissioner Shannon Reid said. “I mean, high-paying jobs and companies that bring in high-paying wages are important, but it also is important to … bring different levels of economic opportunity and reliable working-class jobs.”

That’s a sentiment that is shared by quite a few people in local economic development circles, I believe, but it still may produce some frustration nonetheless. So much focus in recent years has been on producing higher-wage jobs, and the BTBC has statistics on that front. They show that the organization has assisted companies that have started 417 jobs with an annual payroll of $25 million.

That figures out to an average annual wage of just less than $60,000 per job. That’s more than 30% higher than the median income for the average full-time worker in Lawrence, according to Census data.

In the past, that has been the type of statistic that wins you more economic development funding, not less of it. If Wednesday’s County Commission sentiment holds, there’s either going to be a recalibration among local economic development organizations or a lot more head scratching.

Adam Courtney, executive vice president of finance for the BTBC, told commissioners on Wednesday a story that usually also has played well when arguing for funding.

The BTBC currently is in the process of constructing a building expansion at its west campus facility. Courtney told of how the BTBC took $375,000 it received in local funding from the county, the city and KU and then leveraged that money to get another $400,000 from the state of Kansas. The BTBC then took that $775,000 pot of local and state money to use as matching funds to leverage a federal grant of approximately $8 million to help build the expansion, which local officials estimate will house start-up and young tech companies that will employ about 250 people.

That presentation came just one day after county commissioners increased the funding for several social service organizations in town, on the belief that a cut in funding would make it more difficult for those organizations to leverage outside grant funding.

That’s basically the argument the BTBC was making with its numbers, but it seemed to get no traction with commissioners on Wednesday.

There were other BTBC numbers that went over even worse, though. As part of its application process, the county asked the BTBC to explain what it is doing to advance equity. The BTBC responded, in part, by reporting that of the 58 companies it has assisted, about 40% “have female or nonwhite founders.”

That statistic wasn’t well-received by Commissioner Shannon Portillo. She said the term “nonwhite” was problematic and comes at the issue from a “deficit position.” Certainly there has been discussion in some circles that the phrase “nonwhite” is problematic because it can suggest that white people are the norm while every other race or ethnicity is something less than the norm. Portillo then asked the BTBC for more detailed statistics on how many of the BTBC’s client companies had been founded by people of color. In other words, was the 40% number made up of mainly women-owned companies and very few companies owned by people of color? The BTBC didn’t have those statistics, and Portillo said that was problematic.

Commissioner Patrick Kelly — who was the one commissioner who said he did not support a cut to BTBC funding — pushed back slightly on the equity argument. He said applicants for county funding had been asked to provide more elaborate information on equity issues than had previously been the case. As those entities learn more about the type of information the county is seeking, they will provide more detailed information, he said.

“What I don’t want to do is send the message that as you make progress, that you aren’t making enough progress,” Kelly said.

To be fair, it is not clear how much the equity issue played into Portillo’s support for the funding cut. She also said she was uncomfortable with how much local government was being asked to pay of the BTBC’s operating expenses and wondered whether the organization could be more self-sufficient. But she did say she wants the county and the BTBC to have a more “intentional” discussion about how the tech industry has excluded certain people and how that can be addressed.

It is one of many future discussions on economic development that probably will be worth listening to. Commissioners Reid and Portillo wrapped up their economic development comments by noting how much more the Lawrence chamber of commerce receives in county funding than the chambers in Baldwin City and Eudora. The chambers in those two communities each receive $10,000 from the county. The Lawrence chamber receives $195,000.

However, a point worth noting is that the Lawrence chamber’s request actually is not all for the Lawrence chamber. Its request is made in partnership with the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence & Douglas County. That organization, which is managed by the Lawrence chamber, is tasked with promoting economic development throughout the county. That was not mentioned at the meeting, but it sounds like there will be future opportunities to dive into that issue and others.

“In order for our partners to understand where we are headed and the priorities and pressures on the commission, I think this is just an area where we haven’t spent enough time,” County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said of economic development policy in general. “I’m hearing in conversations earlier this year and through this that you really are looking at a pretty targeted lens in terms of how you see the county’s role in economic development.”


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