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Play together or pay dearly

It’s far past time to get deathly serious about countywide economic development, not just economic development isolated to Marion or Hillsboro or any other city. Prosperity in the years ahead depends on throwing out decades-old animosities and rivalries and pulling together for the common good.

Marion, Hillsboro, and county officials met last week in an effort to move that direction. At times the meeting was awkward, particularly when Marion City Administrator Roger Holter demonstrated problems with marketing the county to prospective businesses, even taking a potshot at his own city’s website.

Frankly, I believe he showed great restraint, for there’s much that’s lacking. But Holter’s intent wasn’t to give a full-blown critique. It was to stir the pot just enough to serve as a wake-up call, and to that end it appeared to serve that purpose. They’re all going to meet again. It’s a step in the right direction.

So, too, were the comments about using the resources of all three entities to support towns in the county without direct economic development efforts. County economic developer Teresa Huffman has provided some support that direction, but all could benefit from the power of three and their combined expertise.

It’s reasonable to be skeptical whether this effort will fly any better than recent efforts at countywide collaboration. Just a few years ago, Marion Economic Development Council was more dysfunctional than a daytime soap opera. Marion representatives resigned in a huff, soon followed by Huffman herself. Evidence of collaborative efforts among cities is scarce.

During the meeting, Hillsboro Mayor Delores Dalke pointed out in the meeting the critical importance of looking beyond city boundaries when trying to attract new business. Few would be attracted to a community of 3,000 people, but a potential market of 15,000 customers is far more appealing. That’s certainly what Wal-Mart was banking on, and supposedly its Hillsboro location was one of the few small-format stores that did well.

It’s the county as a whole that makes for a viable location for new businesses that can contribute significant number of jobs. While any city would benefit from a new business, others won’t be left out. Job opportunities and increased tax revenue benefit us all.

But why is it so critical now for this newest effort to succeed, for communities to embrace interconnectedness and take a strong, unified approach to economic development?

The answer lies in where the county is headed if we don’t.

County population, just over 12,000, is the lowest it’s ever been, and the percentage of those of us who are aging out of the work force is growing. We have more people working in low-wage jobs and living below the poverty line. We’re challenged to come up with skilled employees new businesses may need, and short on quality, affordable housing for those we might attract into the county.

That’s been the case for many years, but projections suggest it could get worse. The Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University projects that if no one moves out, Marion County will remain around 12,000 people in 2040, although continuing to skew slightly older.

However, when outward migration is factored in, Marion County would lose about 3,000 people over the next 24 years. The largest decrease would be among working-age adults. That sort of decline would impact everything from business to education to health care. It’s a scenario we must avoid.

Don’t dismiss this recent projection as the result of some formula that isn’t in step with the real world. County population peaked in 1920 at nearly 23,000, and has been declining ever since

A 90-year trend carries some weight.

What the scenario can’t account for, however, is an all-out, concerted effort on the part of county residents to buck it by banding together, pooling resources, and setting the needs of a 12,000-person community as equal to individual towns.

Increased efforts in tourism will help, but they won’t stem the tide. More businesses with more job opportunities are needed to keep the people we have and attract new ones. Modest growth is possible, keeping what we have is probable, but only if we have strong leadership and countywide buy-in.

Otherwise, by 2040, a leading tourist attraction in the county could well be a ghost town or two. That’s a scenario none of us want to see.

— DAVID COLBURN

Last modified Jan. 28, 2016

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