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Focus on development renewed

Staff writer

Marion City Council put renewed emphasis on economic development for 2013 by re-establishing a full-time economic development director in the recently-approved budget, but the position won’t be the same as the one Doug Kjellin vacated in 2010 to become city administrator.

A quarter of Kjellin’s current salary comes from economic development funds, and juggling the responsibilities of city management and business recruitment haven’t been ideal, Kjellin said.

“Economic development in the last two years has been a backstop. Somebody throws a ball at you, you throw it back,” Kjellin said. “We’ve been responsive to inquiries. We need to have somebody throwing the ball around where we’re not answering inquiries, we’ve actively pursuing prospects.

“We’ve always had the opportunity to respond. We just need to get much more aggressive.”

Marion Economic Development, Inc. President Todd Heitschmidt, who also sits on the city council, was more direct in his assessment.

“There’s not enough time,” Heithschmidt said. “He does not have time as city administrator to devote 25 percent of his time to do that.”

One major difference with the economic development director position will be the salary: $32,000, as compared with $46,000 Kjellin was paid when he took the position in 2008.

Heitschmidt said the salary wasn’t likely to attract an experienced economic development professional, but that such a person isn’t necessary.

“Doug has a lot of those characteristics with the experience part,” Heitschmidt said. “What we’re going to focus on is somebody that knows no strangers, is willing to get out and introduce themselves, go to economic development forums, meet the people that are the movers and shakers in the state and surrounding counties, let them know about Marion and Marion County.”

“It’s kind of an ambassador position,” Kjellin said. “Once we get a lead, it becomes more of a team effort so we can buckle down together, put together the package, and get them in here.”

Heitschmidt said, “We don’t have people calling us up on a regular basis saying we want a free lot in the industrial park – that’s not how economic development happens. The name of the game in economic development is who knows who and can connect the dots.”

Economic development as a general concept most find agreeable, but determining how to actually go about it can be a tedious venture.

“I didn’t think this should be a full-time position that the city had to budget for,” Mayor Mary Olsen said. “It’s been my position the city needed to get an agreement of understanding with MEDI and Chamber of Commerce as to how this would be handled.

“We haven’t talked about it as a full council. $32,000 I agreed to. I still believe that should be a three-way venture.”

In principle, Heitschmidt doesn’t like the idea of the position being part of city government, but he said current realities make it the best option for now.

“The city, way before I got to town, made a commitment to an industrial park and a business park. We need to finish that. We need to have the city supporting an economic development person so we can get to a point where the private side will take off and then the city can back out of it,” Heitschmidt said.

MEDI started looking at long-term economic development targets in 2010, to bring focus to development efforts, Heitschmidt said.

“We’re calling it Vision 2020,” Heitschmidt said. “What I’ve encountered is that we haven’t been focused enough. For us it’s about building the tax base. How we do that is building new buildings, bringing in businesses, hiring new employees, or at least upping the pay scale in the community.”

Kjellin said he believes manufacturing should be a priority.

“I really think we need to increase industrial manufacturing in the city,” Kjellin said. “If that’s a hometown business that wants to expand, we should work to support them.

“Saying that, we’ve got an industrial park I want to fill. If we can find a way to incentivize and get it filled, I want to attack it with an equal amount of fury.”

Embracing economic development and all that comes with it requires forward thinking, Kjellin said.

“We cannot say this is the way it’s always been. The economic situation we deal with now is not what it was in the 1950s. If we’re not growing, we’re dying,” Kjellin said.

“If we’re going to be serious about jobs,” Kjellin said, “we have to be serious about this position, open lines of communication, and seek out every possibility.”

Kjellin said the city will initiate the hiring process this fall, with the goal of having a person in place when the new budget year begins in January.

Last modified Aug. 23, 2012

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