Has time come for regionalism?

By Stephen Cameron

JUNCTION CITY — There was an air of celebration at the C. L. Hoover Opera House Friday morning.

Voting members of the Flint Hills Regional Council, along with assorted leaders from counties across this swath of Kansas, well-wishers, guests and even a lady from a local bakery handing out pastries – the whole crowd seemed distinctly upbeat as seven county representatives signed documents that officially created the Flint Hills Economic Development District.

“It’s a positive step toward working together, all of us, to sell our area together – to create a brand, to begin thinking about marketing strategies, eventually bringing in companies and jobs,” said commissioner Robert Boyd, who signed the agreement on behalf of Riley County.

“But none of it is going to be easy. There are different views on almost every issue, there will always be funding questions, and there are still some rivalries in the region.”

There are also some loud voices willing to shout down the entire concept of regionalism when it comes to spending and decision-making.

Manhattan mayor John Matta made it clear two weeks ago at a leaders’ retreat that he wanted no part of a regional “collective” deciding how to allocate his city’s money — even if acting together allows the area to qualify for federal funds.

“That’s how the Soviet Union was created,” Matta said. “A central government doled out money to regional authorities, and the amounts were such that it allowed the government to dictate policy.

“Eventually, individual cities and other entities were powerless, just swallowed up, and everything was in the hands of the central government — disguised as regional benefits.”

Matta said he was fine with ideas like the FHEDD — the regional economic development agency — because it essentially amounts to cheap advertising for the region, and involves no major investment at the federal level.

The mayor repeated that sentiment again at last week’s city commission meeting, but he wants nothing to do with another of the FHRC’s current initiatives — the idea of putting together a transportation agency to serve the entire region.

“That’s a deal where the federal government puts up 80 percent of the money,” Matta said. “Who do you think will have the final say on anything?”

Matta isn’t alone with his anti-regionalism stance, but at this point, the mayor probably has more opponents than allies on the philosophy of regional action.

But for all those leaders who disagree with Matta and see huge benefits from regional cooperation – and welcome government financial help rather than fear it – there are still problems looming down the road.

Long-standing area rivalries and disagreements – between Manhattan and Junction City, or Manhattan and everyone who thinks the area’s largest city gets its way far too often – have lingered as long as people gathered in the Opera House could remember.

Bruce McMillan, a well-known architect with offices in both Manhattan and Junction City, has fought for regional cooperation so long that he struggled to recall the beginning.

He’s never wavered, however, to the point that members of the regional council routinely refer to him – on the record – as the “Godfather of Regionalism.”

McMillan looked at all the people celebrating on Friday and shook his head.

“I know we have issues ahead, lots of issues,” McMillan said. “And I’ll let Bill (Clark, executive director of the FHRC) talk about all the specifics.

“But believe me, there were a lot of times when I never could have imagined all these people you see right now being together in this room – and really trying to work together.”

McMillan could not stop smiling.

And true enough, the council juggled agreements and potential differences very well as the regular board meeting touched on some difficult topics – the location of a long-proposed Flint Hills welcome center, the possibility of placing a state-operated casino in this region, and many more.

“It’s exciting to see the attitudes,” said Megan Umscheid, executive director of the Wamego Chamber of Commerce. “So many things could get done that benefit all of us.”

Indeed, they could.

The region now has a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), and has added the economic development district. Both agencies bring qualification for state or federal funding in some instances.

The man holding the whole thing together, however, somehow manages to be both optimistic and coldly pragmatic about the future of the regional council.

“With cuts in federal and state spending, the simple truth is we have to become self-sustaining,” said Clark, who took over leadership of the FHRC after a stint as garrison commander at Fort Riley.

“Most regional organizations have had 30 or 40 years to make themselves valuable enough that they don’t have to worry about outside funding.

“We’re not in that position. We have an annual budget of $820,000 – most of which goes to staffing. The money comes from three sources: assessments, the fact that we act as fiscal agent for the MPO, and from HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development).

“We got $2 million from HUD as a grant for the ‘Frontiers Project’ (which involves all counties in the Flint Hills, down into Oklahoma), and right now, that HUD funding accounts for about 85 percent of our budget – and it only runs until early in 2015. After that, we have to be self-sustaining.

“What’s taken decades in other places, we have to accomplish in a year.”

The way that can happen, Clark explained, is that the council needs to be a provider of services – things that can be sold to entities within the region.

“Information, analytics, planning – we have the expertise to assist cities, counties, places like K-State and Fort Riley. We already have successes to show, like the MPO and now the economic development district. But we have to make ourselves valuable, and in a pretty short time.”

Clark has a small but talented group of people available to create needed services – planners like Jeff Adams, Stephanie Watts and consultant Gary Stith.

But the clock is ticking.

At least now the commander has a solid group of leaders and influential backers stretched across the Flint Hills to help him.

“This is the best chance we’ve ever had to benefit from regional thinking as a way to help everyone,” McMillan said. “It makes so much sense.

“We can’t let it slip away from us.”

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