Chamber, Thrive state their case
Each year, Iola allocates roughly $45,000 to the Iola Area Chamber of Commerce and Thrive Allen County.
The question City Council members asked Monday, was whether the city is getting sufficient bang for its bucks.
For nearly 90 minutes, representatives from both entities detailed their missions, how they’ve served the community and their goals for the future.
Speaking on behalf of the Chamber was Shilo Eggers, president of the Board of Directors. Bill Maness, economic development director and interim chief executive officer for Thrive, spoke for his organization.
While both are in a period of transition — Eggers said the Chamber’s next executive director should be on board within the next month; Maness noted interviews are ongoing as well for Thrive’s next CEO — both assured the Council their dedication to serve the community remains unwavering.
EGGERS kicked off the discussion by giving a “state of the Chamber” address.
In addition to the search for a new director, the Chamber has sold its old building on West Madison Avenue and relocated to an office in the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, saving the organization between $5,000 and $6,000 annually.
Eggers also spoke about a relaunch of the Chamber’s website and a new cell phone app for businesses to better promote their services and upcoming sales. In addition, the Chamber is in the midst of developing a visitor’s guide to Allen County, which will highlight attractions in and around the Iola area. She hopes to have the guide available by May.
MANESS pointed to strong economic indicators in Iola and Allen County. Sales tax revenues were up about $99,000 in Iola for 2018; $160,000 countywide. The county’s ability to keep residents shopping locally and bring in out-of-county commerce also ranked among the best when compared to surrounding counties. And unemployment remains steady at 3.5 percent.
Not all was positive. While Allen County continues to draw workers from other counties — evidence the area has a good job market — the county’s population continues to drop.
“We’re thankful for residents who do come to Allen County (to work), but we really need to figure out how to get them to live in Allen County,” Maness said.
As for direct benefits, Maness pointed to Thrive’s role in bringing G&W Foods to Iola. The store, which opened in January 2018, was part of $2.5 million in new construction (including a nearby apartment complex built by Iola Industries), created 50 new jobs, and turned a blighted property — the old Allen County Hospital site — into a new business.
While it will take a few years for Iola to recoup abated property taxes — courtesy of the city’s neighborhood revitalization incentives — G&W brought in $100,000 in utility sales in 2018.
“There were other wins,” Maness said, pointing to the opening of the Dollar Tree last year, which will generate more than $1 million in sales in its first year.
Thrive also remains active in seeing a Sleep Inn and Suites hotel built in Iola, as well as a new Ace Hardware store. “Both are still very much alive,” Maness said.
Thrive also assisted Sharon Whitworth in the sale of the old McGinty-Whitworth building downtown, he continued, which will lead to a new retail store on the square.
Thrive’s connections across the state and country are integral into the organization’s success, Maness said.
THEIR COMMENTS precipitated an extended discussion among Council members, including the need for better communication between the city, the Chamber and Thrive.
City Administrator Sid Fleming spelled out Iola’s dilemma.
“Our communication with both could be improved,” he said.
“As a staff, it’d be nice for us to know what’s going on, to be a part of that conversation,” Fleming continued. “I feel like we don’t get a lot of information on our end. It’s not all just with Thrive. There could be improvement on the city’s side as well. We need open communication, to have an open channel.”
Upon questioning from Councilman Ron Ballard, Fleming noted the city has had monthly meetings scheduled with Thrive since December 2017. Of those 14 meetings, five had been canceled.
Maness and Eggers both agreed steps could, and would, be taken to improve communication with the city. Eggers suggested the Council come with a list of expectations for the Chamber to ensure all remain on the same page.
COUNCILWOMAN Kim Peterson touched on Thrive’s annual budget of more than $1 million. Why does Thrive need another $20,000 from the city, she asked.
Most of Thrive’s budget, Maness responded, is from grants, and is earmarked for specific programs and projects. And of that funding, much is dedicated to health and wellness.
“So your focus is health and wellness,” Peterson continued. “Now, you’re in the tourism business, too?”
“We’d like to be,” Maness replied, noting Thrive has appealed to Allen County commissioners for $50,000 to kickstart Visit Allen County. The campaign would utilize Thrive’s existing relationships with groups from across the country.
Councilman Mark Peters, meanwhile, asked Maness to extrapolate on “the whole picture,” including areas where the future isn’t so rosy. He pointed to 300 lost jobs at Gates Corporation over the past few years, and the uncertain future of Super 8 Motel as examples.
Maness said he could not comment publicly on either instance.
“Some of those things I’d be able to discuss in executive session,” Maness responded.
BALLARD asked Eggers and Maness if the city would be better off hiring its own economic development director.
Eggers noted the Chamber’s mission is to serve as an advocate for its members, most of which are private businesses.
“If that economic developer is a city or government employee, what side of the spectrum will they be on?” Eggers asked. “What lens will they be looking through? The Chamber is not a government entity. We’re for the businesses. We don’t want to fight the city. We want to get along.”
Maness called the city’s cost of hiring Thrive — $20,000 annually — a bargain.
“I’d challenge you to find an economic development director for $20,000,” Maness said, particularly one who would have the established connections that Thrive has developed through the years.
Maness returned to G&W’s opening. “Here’s a business who’s paid $100,000 (in utilities) in one year,” he said. “For $20,000, that’s hard to beat.”
“Why shouldn’t we pay one person $60,000 to bring in $300,000 in utility sales?” Ballard countered, without being able to provide such an example.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” Maness responded. “If there’s an opportunity for $300,000, I’d certainly chase that. … If you don’t see $20,000 as a value, I’m not going to be able to say anything to change your mind.”
Councilman Aaron Franklin boiled down the key difference between Thrive and the Chamber. Thrive is more focused on outside growth; the Chamber serves those businesses already in place.
IOLA BANKER Jim Gilpin, one of several in the audience who spoke on the issue, offered what he described as historical perspective.
From 1955 to 2015, economic development in Allen County was handled on a volunteer basis primarily through Iola Industries. For the last 10 of those years, the late Max Snodgrass, then retired, devoted his time to the effort.
It was Snodgrass who helped put locals in touch with entrepreneurs and other employers, Gilpin said. But when Snodgrass was felled by a stroke, the other Iola Industries members agreed a full-time economic developer was needed.
“None of us could do what he did, because we all had full-time jobs,” Gilpin said.
“We’ve done pretty well with the present arrangement,” Gilpin said. “For $20,000, you’re tying into an existing group that can leverage the fact that they have networks. They have the interest of everyone at heart.
“The unfortunate part, on the whole subject of economic development, is it takes an enormous amount of time on a continuum,” he continued. “Your expectations are for now, this year. It’s the nature of beast. It takes a lot of time to bring these things to fruition.”
Gilpin noted Thrive routinely shares reams of information about economic development projects with Iola Industries each month. Fleming is a regular attendee. Gilpin said the Council members also are welcome to attend.
“And the Chamber, until the last decade, was primarily a retail organization,” Gilpin said. “Thanks to Walmart and thanks to Amazon, retail has gone in a whole different direction.
Does it mean the Chamber’s irrelevant? No. The fact we’ve got this much bang for our buck, it means we’re doing something right.”
As an aside, Maness also serves on the Chamber board, and spoke out in favor of the organization’s continued support from the city.
MAYOR JON Wells noted Monday’s discussion was just that — a discussion.
“I don’t want this meeting to seem like we’re questioning either organization,” Wells said. “The question is, what is the best way to serve our citizens?”
The Council agreed to continue the discussions, including mapping out the city’s expectations from both.
Franklin noted the importance of both organizations to “pull in the same direction.
“I’ve been involved in different community groups,” Franklin said. “Even though different groups might have a common goal for improving community, oftentimes they end up working against each other for, lack of a better term, for ego. I don’t know if that’s something going on with Thrive and the Chamber, and this ‘Visit’ thing. In addition to communication, collaboration is just as important.”
The ‘Visit’ thing Franklin referred to was a recent County Commission meeting at which Eggers spoke out against the city spending funds to assist with Thrive’s foray into promoting tourism.
The county has not yet decided.
WELLS said the economic development discussions would be brought up again in March.
IN OTHER business, the Council:
— Updated the city’s ordinance affecting the state’s new cereal malt beverage allowances.
Starting April 1, licensed vendors will be allowed to sell cereal malt beverages — beer, wine coolers, etc. — consisting of up to 6 percent alcohol content. The current limit is 3.2 percent.
Once the state law goes into effect, Iola’s municipal codes would unlawfully contradict the state’s limits, Fleming noted, thus making the new ordinance necessary.
— Received the city’s annual forfeiture report from Iola Police Chief Jared Warner. Iola brought in $5,441.72 in 2018 on six drug cases, while spending $2,895, a 5 percent administrative fee that goes to the Allen County attorney’s office. The added revenue gives the Police Department $11,547 in the bank, Warner said. Council members asked him to begin investigating the costs affiliated with bringing a K-9 unit to help search for illegal drugs.
— Approved a request from Boy Scouts Pack 3055 to use the John Silas Bass North Community Building free of charge April 5 for its annual Blue & Gold Banquet.