Talking trust at retreat

By Stephen Cameron

OVERLAND PARK — Is all-out regionalism the best way to develop the Flint Hills into a business powerhouse?

Can old grudges among major players in Manhattan, Fort Riley and Wamego be forgotten in the interest of the common good?

There were certainly plenty of cheerleaders for that approach over the weekend at the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce leaders’ retreat in this Kansas City suburb.

And a few skeptics, as well.

Most of the group began midday Friday by filling a hotel ballroom with talk about building trust, and finished late Saturday morning while banging the same drum.

So will they step up and be counted when the tough decisions come, or when a huge company considers moving its headquarters (and a few hundred jobs) to one of the region’s counties?

Would the Manhattan City Commission vote to spend a chunk of money to help build a road that seems mostly to benefit Pottawatomie County?

“You are not competing against each other,” event facilitator Courtney Dunbar, economic development leader for civil engineering regional giant Olsson Associates said. “You folks are already criss-crossing the area every day. You’re already practicing regionalism.

“You’ve got to stop thinking of yourselves as individual communities,” she said, “because selling the regional brand would be so much more successful for everyone.”

Bill Clark, the former Fort Riley commander who is now executive director of the Flint Hills Regional Council, put it this way: “Regionalism is about doing together what we can’t do alone.”

On the plus side, there was almost unanimous agreement on two things:

First, that the leaders of all the cities, counties and other key entities (K-State, Fort Riley) in the Flint Hills region definitely benefit from meeting together regularly and sharing information and ideas. That one was a no-brainer, as was the notion of operating under the umbrella of a common brand.

Second, that this is a critical time for the area — the National Bio and Agro Defense Facility (NBAF) is coming to Manhattan, and Fort Riley ultimately should see a reduction in forces.

“NBAF is a game-changer,” Dunbar said. “It’s the golden ticket.

“This is the type of facility that brings other companies from the (global food supply) industry and the bio-science sector to the Flint Hills. You’re not going to be landing businesses that might go to Wichita or Denver. You’re going to be getting people from around the world —and you have to be ready to get in the game.”

So far, so good.

If there was widespread agreement about cooperation in some areas, however, there definitely were glitches in others.

For instance, Dunbar showed several slides and talked at length about the huge success of a regional development group with Omaha as its hub.

It’s called the “GO Project” and it’s brought millions in income to eastern Nebraska.

Several smaller cities and counties that have land to match the workforce available in Omaha join forces pitch the area to industries, and they sell whatever might work best for a particular client — no matter where the ideal location might be.

What Dunbar did not mention, until it came up as a question, is that no voting members of the GO Project board are elected officials.

“It’s true that elected members could face tough decisions and some conflict of interest,” she said. “But certainly, there are elected officials who are part of the project, ex officio. They’re in the loop, but they don’t have a decision-making part in the process.”

It’s difficult, therefore, to consider the Omaha model when discussing how to develop this part of northeast Kansas.

The Flint Hills Regional Council board is made up almost entirely of elected officials, and one of its offshoots, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), is considering a move to create a transportation entity that could apply for federal funding with an 80-20 split.

“The members of the transit agency essentially would be the same people as the MPO board,” said Stephanie Watts, the MPO’s transportation planner. “We envision the groups meeting consecutively on the same day, one right after the other.”

That sort of thing raises the ire of Manhattan Mayor John Matta, a man who understands regionalism. He works in Junction City and formerly served on the board of that city’s chamber of commerce.

“I’m all in favor of the (FHRC) and sharing information, that sort of thing,” Matta said, “but I don’t like the MPO telling us how our money will be spent.

“And no matter what anyone says, if the federal government is giving you 80 percent of funding for anything, it will be done the way they want it.

“Like any elected official, my first obligation is to my constituents — and so when something comes up, my job is to do what’s best for them. Going along with the MPO, or any other regional group, might not be the best thing for the citizens of Manhattan.”

Clark takes umbrage at Matta’s view of regional planning and spending.

“John simply isn’t seeing that if you put eight dimes with his two dimes, you can turn that into something a whole lot more valuable,” Clark said. “His reasoning is shortsighted.”

Obviously, despite some warm and fuzzy conversation during the sessions and over cocktails at a Friday night reception, there is work to be done and there are some niggling issues to be ironed out.

“There’s still protectionism here,” said Riley County Commissioner Dave Lewis. “We need more decision-makers sitting in the same room more often.

“And no matter what anyone says, we still need to build more trust on every level. But at least we’re closer to that, and to taking action, than we have been.”

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