Just as he’s hitting his stride, Jonathon Goering, Thrive’s economic development director, is leaving his post.
Though it’s a bittersweet decision for Goering, he’s already putting a positive spin on it.
“When I come to Iola in the future, I’ll see Sharky’s, the Fillmore Coffee House, Jock’s Nitch, new development at the airport, and know that I played a small role in them coming to Iola. That will always mean a lot to me,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
Goering’s decision to return to Wichita is because his wife of 18 years, Betsey, a high school science teacher of as many years in Wichita, could not find a teaching position in Iola or the nearby area.
After 2.5 years of living apart, “we decided family came first,” he said. Goering, age 47, has accepted a position with Greater Wichita Partnership, the economic development arm of Wichita and its surrounding communities.
Allen County, Iola Industries, Humboldt and Iola have been the primary funders of Goering’s position here. Recent increases by the county, Iola and Humboldt have brought the position’s budget to $117,00, with Iola bearing almost half the load.
Goering praises the jump in local support.
“That’s a big win for Allen County. And it’s a testament that Thrive’s funding partners believe in economic development and want to see it grow.”
Ideally, he said, a team of two would handle the responsibility.
“One person can only do so much. Two people would be a game-changer.”
A study by Atlas Studios in 2021 confirmed the area should devote several times over — $500,000 to $700,00 — to its economic development efforts, matching that of neighboring counties.
“The sky’s the limit for Allen County,” he said, noting the area’s ideal location, abundance of space and budding recreational opportunities.
Successful economic development requires people believing in an area’s future, he said. “Part of my role has been to help people see that vision.”
It also requires patience and the conviction that the hard work eventually pays off. Economic development is not for the faint of heart, nor does it come quickly.
“What’s important is to bring people into a conversation early. Get them thinking about the possibilities. The first half-dozen reactions and answers may be no, but if you keep working at the goal, a lot of times a compromise can be reached. And in my mind, that’s a win.”
Goering used Allen County Airport as an example.
Ever since he arrived in early 2020, Goering said he’s been approached by multiple individuals about the airport’s untapped potential.
“Those with ties to the airport or who have planes, elected officials, or even those who just realize it’s a gold mine, came to me asking what could be done there.”
The land, which sits halfway between Iola and Humboldt, has about 80 acres ripe for development.
Goering got the ball rolling in fall of 2020 when Thrive learned of “the potential for federal dollars coming down the pike for infrastructure,” through COVID-19 relief funding.
Knowing that cities and counties prepared to move forward stood a better chance to receive funding, the county approved B&G Consultants to conduct a feasibility study as to what development would be like at a 24-acre parcel in the northwest corner of the airport.
“That was great foresight on the part of the county,” he said.
The study, which took the better part of 2021, determined what the site needed in terms of expanded water, sewer and gas lines, increased electricity capacity, and internet connectivity.
“You have to know not only what you need, but also what you can afford,” Goering said.
Just one month after B&G’s report was complete, Goering learned applications for the federal BASE, Building a Strong Economy, grants would be accepted.
Because of the recently completed feasibility study, “We put together a strong application,” Goering said, noting the help of Thrive’s grant writer Rachel Moore.
The only stumbling block was agreeing on how much money to request.
“That took many conversations,” he said.
In the end, commissioners felt comfortable requesting $3 million, which required a $1 million local match, that commissioners agreed to fund primarily with American Rescue Plan Act funding, another COVID-19 relief package.
In February of 2022, Goering learned they were successful.
“It was a good day,” he smiled.
By the end of 2024, much of the work of adding expanded utilities to the airport should be “well underway,” he said.
“People probably get tired of us talking about the airport, but it is one of the county’s greatest assets,” he said.
LOOKING AHEAD, Goering has no doubts Thrive will be able to find his replacement.
“Thrive is well-positioned to attract someone of high caliber and that makes me happy. The funding component is now there.”
Goering noted that he’s also worn several hats.
“Economic development in a rural area is also about community development, including childcare, housing, workforce development and transportation.”
Goering stressed the necessity of communities working together.
“We can’t operate in separate silos. If we don’t work together, we fall short of our potential.”
“I really feel a change coming. I see the talent that’s coming this way. New businesses opening and people getting involved in their communities. I see a groundswell of enthusiasm.
“I see it because I’m in it every day. These are the people I’m interacting with. It’s very exciting.
“These are the things that provide the spark and inspiration to greater things.”
Successful economic development means “assisting and encouraging these people. To be their biggest cheerleaders, and then get out of their way,” Goering said.
That model is inherent to Thrive, he noted.
“Lisse (Regehr, Thrive CEO and president) is an incredible leader,” he said.
Thrive’s success record in bringing new business and funds the county’s way “is only the beginning,” Goering ventured.
For 2022, Thrive helped secure 60 grants totaling about $4.4 million. Of that, more than $3 million were designated community grants directly affecting local nonprofits and government entities such as a $450,000 Community Development Block Grant to update Moran’s water and sewer treatment system.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s so much more that can be done. I think of all the things I couldn’t get to in my tenure,” Goering said.
“People who have a bold vision and work together make things happen. And yes, we have enough people here to get the ball really rolling.”