Complacency, distrust seen as stumbling blocks to economic development

By Megan Moser

OVERLAND PARK — An outsider’s diagnosis of current challenges with economic development in our area boiled down to two things: complacency and a lack of trust.

Atlanta-based consultant Jonathan Sangster was the featured speaker at the annual retreat of the Manhattan, Junction City and Wamego chambers of commerce Friday and Saturday at a hotel in this suburb of Kansas City. Having toured the area and talked with officials and business owners, he offered his impressions — and not all of them were favorable.

Sangster, whose work involves locating and selecting the best sites for national companies, told the assembled crowd of 220 that he sensed the cities were still thinking of each other as opponents when they should be working as a team to vie with other metropolitan areas in the Midwest for new opportunities.

“Right now, my sense is that you’re competing internally for very little, instead of competing together for a larger universe,” he said.

Later, several people echoed his assessment as they reported what they had discussed in small-group sessions. Some people said they felt relations among the cities had improved through the efforts of the Flint Hills Regional Council and the development of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, but others thought they could still use some work.

Sangster pointed out that when a new company or industry comes to the area, it benefits all parties. So when one city can’t find a site that meets a company’s needs, it should check to see whether one of the other communities has such a site.

He suggested creating more centralized data to help developers find sites in the area that meet all of their needs. He also proposed increasing regional branding efforts and finding ways to “tell your story with one voice.”

He told the group about the cities in nearby states he thought might be considered the Manhattan area’s competition by companies looking to locate here. Those included Columbia, Mo.; Fayetteville, Ark.; Tulsa, Okla.; Topeka, Omaha, Neb.; and Grand Junction Colo. He showed a table comparing several data points for each city to show the areas in which the Manhattan area excelled or fell short.

Challenges for our area, he said, include stagnant population growth and negative migration; a very low unemployment rate, which can be good but also might signify the lack of an available workforce, low per capita income and limited air access.

Sangster also said that low industrial diversity, possibly with too much reliance on the public sector (meaning K-State and Fort Riley) have allowed us to stagnate.

“My sense it that maybe you’ve become a little complacent and just satisfied,” he said.

He pointed out that the recession didn’t affect the area much, and our football team has been winning. But he urged the group to consider what would happen if the planned National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility didn’t come through, or if Fort Riley experienced huge spending cuts.

Sangster also posed this question: Even if the NBAF does open in Manhattan, is the area ready to meet the needs of bioscience companies that might want to locate here? Do we have the land and infrastructure? Do we have the required workforce? Do we have enough road and air access?

In general, Sangster said, the region “has a great story to tell.” But he said the region needs to stop relying on Forbes magazine lists to get the word out and put more resources and emphasis toward getting the word out.

Several people made suggestions about how to accomplish this, ranging from completing the regional welcome center to giving a portion of each city’s convention and visitors bureau funds to regional tourism efforts.

Former Manhattan mayor Bruce Snead urged attendees start with one simple task. “When someone asks where you’re from,” he said, “tell them, ‘I’m from the Flint Hills.’”

He asked the group, “Where are you from?”

A few people answered, “I’m from the Flint Hills.”

He tried several times to get the group to repeat the phrase in unison. By the end, it still wasn’t one voice, but it was an improvement.

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