HUMBOLDT — Gov. Laura Kelly was in Humboldt Thursday morning to tour the Monarch Cement plant and learn its history.
The extensive outing included seeing the plant’s massive rotary kilns, its sophisticated control room and towering silos.
Kelly said, “It’s companies like Monarch that are the bedrock, literally, of our state, along with agriculture.”
Not content with the status quo, Kelly said, “We’re working ferociously to grow our economy here in the state of Kansas,” adding, “Last year we set a record for new capital investments in the state. Over $2.5 billion.”
Kelly said she was “very, very impressed” with her tour of the plant, and in Monarch’s “adaptations over the years.”
“It looks state-of-the-art,” she said, “even though you’ve been around for over 100 years.”
Kelly also praised the company for its “emphasis on things like climate and your employees,” for example, through health measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In response to remarks given by Monarch CEO Walter Wulf, Kelly said she recognized the issue of industry regulations as well, and the problems that can arise when they differ state-to-state.
“I’ve heard what you said about regulations nationwide. I’m with you on that,” she agreed. “Patchwork is a problem. We’ve experienced some of that in our state.”
Kelly then emphasized how economic development involves more than recruiting industries industries or building houses. Community revitalization is also paramount.
In response to an audience question about COVID-19 and herd immunity, Kelly said, “we have to do that if we ever want to really get back to work, get back to school, get back to normal.”
(Herd immunity is when enough of the population has been vaccinated that it provides protection against disease for the whole community.)
Kelly continued, “we are doing everything we possibly can to deal with some of the issues around vaccine hesitancy, and access to the vaccines in some of our more socially-vulnerable communities.”
Her bottom line: “convincing folks that it’s in their best interest and in everyone’s best interest to get vaccinated.”
“I’m not going to give up. We’re going to keep pushing for that,” she said, as she contended that “Kansas is actually doing better than most states in terms of vaccine uptake.”
The last major issue Kelly discussed was the forthcoming round of stimulus dollars from the federal government in the form of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan.
“We have a lot of money coming in from the federal government. We’ll be on our third stimulus,” she noted.
According to Kelly, the state as a whole will receive $800 million, then another $800 million, along with additional funding for things like education.
Allen County alone is set to receive over $2 million.
Kelly explained that whereas the previous round of SPARK funding was focused on health, the next is attuned to economic recovery.
Hence, it’s time now to determine “how to best invest these dollars to ensure that 10 or 20 years from now, we’re benefiting from the investments that we made … that will include things like housing and infrastructure.”
She also said that funds would be directed to improve technology and cyber security systems operated by the state, as well as child-care infrastructure, especially for businesses.
“We don’t have enough quality and accessible childcare,” she stated.
Although he spoke only briefly, Lt. Gov. and Iola native David Toland took a few moments to discuss the Office of Rural Prosperity (ORP) and some of its initiatives.
“For the first time in state history, there’s a dedicated office that’s focused on the needs of rural Kansas,” he said.
One initiative that the ORP is connected to, is the first comprehensive statewide housing study in 27 years.
Toland said that data collected through this study would address questions like: “What are the housing needs in the state? What’s the ‘composition’ of housing we need? At what price point? Where?”
By year’s end when data collection is complete, strategies for intervention can then begin.
“We’re going to be walking the walk on housing,” Toland said. “Our hope is that we get more rooftops going up very quickly.”
“We need homes to drive the workforce,” he added, though noted that the problem is complex enough that it can’t be solved by financial investments alone.
Prior to Kelly’s remarks, Monarch CEO Walter Wulf addressed the small audience as well, and made a plea to the governor regarding industry regulations.
Wulf began by giving an ultra-brief history of the company, and noted that only two local cement plants remain of all those that once helped catalyze the entire region’s economy.
Addressing Kelly specifically, Wulf said that he and the company were “grateful for efforts to restore the policy of using fuel tax revenues on transportation.”
And he likewise praised the state for its involvement in work currently underway on US Highway 169 between Welda and Garnett.
Wulf then switched tracks, focusing on persuading the governor to consider the company’s position on industry regulations.
“One of the challenges lying ahead with the cement industry relates to the increasing sensitivity to CO2 emissions,” he said.
“The cement industry is very energy intense,” and so “regardless of where in the world Portland Cement is produced, it cannot be [made] without thriving off CO2.”
However, Wulf conceded that “increased scrutiny is in our industry’s future,” and so spoke to measures the company was taking internally to prepare, such as forming a Climate and Sustainability Council, which will “develop a roadmap to reduce CO2.”
The Monarch CEO argued as well that certain regulations would result in “an uneven playing field,” and he worried that such measures could lead to exporting jobs and importing cement.
“It’s unusual for an industry to invite regulation,” he said, “but in this case, informed federal oversight, taking economic impact into consideration, …. is preferable to state-by-state regulations.”