Marion Community Center was an indoor field of dreams Thursday as about 30 county residents shared ideas about desired improvements with county planning and zoning commissioners.
The meeting was the first step in developing a comprehensive plan for the county to replace one developed in 2003.
Not surprisingly, while topics ran the gamut from land use and historical features to agriculture and roads, a persistent theme was economic development.
Commission member Dwight Flaming opened the door early.
“As we develop this comprehensive plan, there’s also the economic plan,” he said. “They really need to mesh, they need to work together if we’re going to work for the betterment of the whole county. Whatever hat we’re wearing, we want it better for ourselves as well as everyone else around us.”
Circles of Marion County director Mark Rogers tossed out the first high-tech idea.
“What I think we really need to focus on as a county, and I know it’s expensive, but if we could improve Internet access,” he said. “High speed Internet is the gateway to the future. If we want people to locate here we need high speed, low cost Internet.”
Shortly thereafter, James Wiens of Goessel asked for more clarification of planning and economic development, and commission chairman Nick Kraus turned to Marion County Economic Development Corporation board member Roger Holter.
Holter briefly recapped how the corporation was developed and talked about how communities are being recruited to participate in the countywide initiative.
While drawing manufacturers and developing skilled labor have been common topics at other meetings, Holter tied economic development and the comprehensive plan together by talking about alternative agriculture, land use, and bringing in businesses that would complement ag producers.
“The second or third largest economic growth opportunity is to provide for primary processing of what we can produce here,” Holter said. “Barley is an alternative crop that right now would bring more to our producers than what wheat is. There’s no processing plant for barley in our region. That benefits many of our producers because we could process it locally and you cut down your logistics cost.”
While Holter used it as an example, he said initial contacts to explore such a possibility have been made.
Steve Schmidt with Cottonwood Crossing Santa Fe Trail Association said future development should take into consideration the county’s historical assets, many of which are unknown to the general public.
Schmidt pointed to the process for site plan reviews as a place to start.
“I suggest adding some things to the review to identify historic features and how a development would impact those,” he said.
Roads, housing, emergency communications, and marketing were among other issues raised by the group, but John Fast, superintendent of Goessel schools, encouraged the commission to expand its reach.
“We’re mostly 50 and above and predominantly male here,” Fast said. “Your invite for input is appreciated, but how will you connect with young families? You need to hear from young families that are moving to the county and talk to them about what they are wanting and needing.”
Fast suggested school districts would be willing to connect commission members with school site councils as a means to get that input.
Toward the end of the two-hour exchange, Schmidt turned to one challenge facing the county’s smallest communities.
“Is there any way through zoning regulations that we can help discourage the migration of the criminal element into the rural areas and small towns, particularly the drug-related element?” he said. “It seems law enforcement is spread thin.”
Related comments addressed dilapidated housing, including substandard trailer houses.
Kraus acknowledged the frustrations expressed, and said the commission could address at least part of the concerns.
“We set the regulations to give the commission some teeth to say, ‘Hey, clean it up, that doesn’t belong here,’” Kraus said.
Commission zoning consultant David Yearout said two hurdles to solutions were outside the scope of regulations.
“We can’t regulate morality, and we can’t regulate common sense,” he said.
The commission plans to offer additional opportunities for citizen input in the coming months as the plan is developed, Kraus said.