OPINION

The goal: Enhanced economic development in Leavenworth County

Mike Stieben
Mike Stieben

In an effort to modernize the strategy toward economic development in Leavenworth County, the focus of county economic development efforts must change. Transitioning from a static approach involving a select few key economic development professionals to a dynamic and team-centered effort will encourage collaboration between community leaders at all levels. Specific concerns raised by several commissioners surrounded efforts to develop the Leavenworth and Tonganoxie industrial parks, where Leavenworth County taxpayers invested $10 million in improvements and have realized minimal return on investment.  Other concerns were raised regarding accountability for the use of public funds and communication between the Leavenworth County Development Corporation and county officials.  

The desire to upgrade the decades-old economic development engine in Leavenworth County was the driving force behind the Board of County Commission authorization of the Leavenworth County Economic Development Task Force. This team was tasked with establishing the foundation of a new model for Leavenworth County economic development efforts.

Members of the task force included County Commission Chairman Mike Smith, Commissioner Mike Stieben, Leavenworth County Administrator Mark Loughry, Leavenworth City Manager Paul Kramer, Tonganoxie City Manager George Brajkovic, Lansing City Administrator Tim Vandal, Basehor City Administrator Leslee Rivarola, Leavenworth County Port Authority Board Representative Chris Donnelly, LCDC President Josh Hoppes, LCDC Treasurer Brian Habjan and LCDC Past President Harland Russell.

The task force scheduled formal meetings every two weeks from March 3 through May 20, with additional informal discussions between County Commission members and members of the task force leadership, attempting to define the new paradigm for both funding and the overall direction of future economic development efforts. Members reviewed the economic development efforts of multiple organizations and heard comments from Alicia Janesko-Hutchings, manager of Business Recruitment, Kansas Department of Commerce; Jill McCarthy, senior vice president of Corporate Attraction for Kansas City Area Development Council (KCADC), and Leavenworth County Development Corporation Executive Director Steve Jack. Local elected officials were also surveyed on their goals for future economic development. These results highlighted differences in prioritization of infrastructure, retail development and retention of current business developments.

There were many proposals floated throughout the process to initiate a new model of economic development leadership. The Enhanced Economic Development Plan called for changes in the current economic development model while providing a path for fully funding the LCDC/LCPA. This proposal called for an economic development plan “... with strategic goals and objective standards,”  a sort of comprehensive plan for economic development. The proposal further called for “... the establishment of specific goals and timelines to temper economic development expectations within the county as well as for holding economic development entities that use tax dollars accountable for performance or non-performance of objective goals.” The Enhanced Economic Development Plan was designed to serve as a compromise to achieve the goal of maintaining current economic development efforts while allowing the county to authorize a new leadership model and direction.  

A key component of the new plan is the establishment of an economic development office. This office would be led by a county-level director who would be accountable to the Leavenworth County Board of Commissioners. This new office would provide comprehensive leadership to economic development efforts within the county and partner with the current LCDC/LCPA on an economic development strategy or plan which is not present under the current structure.

The main concern related to this proposal was the perceived duplication of services, which some members thought would occur with the addition of a county economic development director. This became a key stumbling block preventing the task force from achieving consensus. LCDC representatives insisted that they must be involved in creating the job description for the new county position. County leaders deemed the request to be unreasonable, since LCDC had made no such request of other communities with economic development staffs including the city of Leavenworth. Another point of contention between members of the task force related to funding levels. Several members supported flat or increased levels funding, with additional funds appropriated to support the new county economic office. 

The FY 2021 appropriation for economic development of $280,000 will increase to $309,000 in FY 2022 based on the current mill levy. The $309K will be split: $160,000 to the new county economic development office and the remaining $149,000 to the Port Authority. In 2020, the BOCC established that LCDC funding will be administered through the Port Authority. The FY 2021 appropriation will decrease funding to LCDC/LCPA by $70,000, which could be partially recovered through rent-free office space at the new Cushing facility. This would leave a gap of only $40,000 to get to FY 2021 funding levels for the LCDC/LCPA. While negotiations on funding came within $40,000 of reaching a compromise to support moving forward with the new economic development paradigm, ultimately the reason the negotiations failed was an issue of control.

Several possible solutions to the $40K shortfall were discussed. One involved an LCDC request to the Port Authority for additional support taken from the $700,000-plus currently in LCPA reserves. Additional funding support from the cities, members at large, businesses and other sources was also discussed, but the final first-year funding proposal did not include funding from the cities. It is hoped that moving forward there will be additional funding available from the cities and the county. Designating FY 2022 as a transition year into the new economic development paradigm and supporting funding proposals that align with the objective plans for future economic development in Leavenworth County will provide the necessary correction to the economic development strategy.

Change is hard and moving to a new plan will not be easy. However, if successful, Leavenworth County will retain the current economic development entities and the services that they provide, while also bringing additional ammunition to the fight for high paying, good jobs to our communities. What we need is to enhance the economic development efforts that are already serving us well with additional resources, ideas, processes and a fresh look at our goals.

Mike Stieben is a member of the Leavenworth County Commission.