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Minus 348 and 19

You’re probably wondering right now, “Minus 348 and 19 what?” I won’t keep you in the dark for long, but I’ll give you a hint: It has to do with economic development.

Yes siree, it’s that topic again. Trust me, I’d rather be writing about light-hearted things, such as speculating on what the next color combination of Marion’s Central Park lights will be. But I seem to be the only one curious about such things, while lots of folks are suddenly interested in the survival of the county.

That “minus 348” is how many private business and industry employees Marion County lost between 2006 and 2015, comparing June employment statistics from those years. Nineteen is how many fewer private business establishments the county has.

I didn’t pick 2006 totally arbitrarily. That October the county hired Teresa Huffman as economic development secretary, and promoted her to director a few months later. She’s been the one development constant in the county since then. Tom Brown, the county’s strategic planning consultant, said at the time, “With no economic development director, we were just treading water. Now, we should begin to see progress. We don’t want to lose more people.” It seemed as good a point to start as any.

Let’s be clear here — this isn’t just about Huffman. Marion and Hillsboro have had varied success in securing and retaining developers over those years. Collectively, there’s been a lot of money, time, and effort thrown at economic development.

So what do we have to show for all of it? Ten years ago, Brown said, “We should begin to see progress.” Have we?

It’s not easy to measure the impact of the investments. It could be argued that the slide in employment and businesses would have been worse without it. It’s difficult to assess the impact of tourism and generalized marketing.

However, the bottom line is jobs, no matter if they come from established businesses expanding or new business startups. Jobs keep people here, jobs bring people back, and jobs will attract new people.

In terms of jobs, across nine years of a three-headed approach to economic development, we didn’t “see progress.” We aren’t even “treading water.” If the slide continues, it is bound to accelerate, and those dire projections of population decline from Wichita State will sadly ring true.

What’s needed is for our officials that oversee economic development efforts in the county to come together and solicit professional advice on establishing outcomes to be expected from their investment. Commissioners and council members are more accustomed to getting reports of activities, but activities are only means, not results.

The public doesn’t care how many meetings someone attended, how many businesses were visited, how many ads were placed in however many publications or theaters, or who’s networking with whom. They care about thriving businesses, good jobs, economic growth, and quality of life, and that their tax dollars are actually helping make that happen.

Economic development programs can’t control all the variables that go into those things, nor can they make things change in a heartbeat, but “minus 348 and 19” isn’t a resounding endorsement for business as usual.

— david colburn

Last modified March 9, 2016

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