It’s been six years since Allen County, Iola or Humboldt has increased their funding for economic development provided by Thrive Allen County.
In the year so far, Thrive has brought about $5 million this area’s way, including $3 million for further infrastructure development at Allen County Regional Airport; $823,000 for Moran to upgrade its water and sewer lines, $50,000 for new housing in Humboldt and almost $43,000 for Savonburg’s park and trails.
In 2021, Thrive secured $1.4 million for the immediate region, including $200,000 for public transportation services, public library systems and the county health department; $350,000 to put toward Iola’s new fire truck, more than $67,000 for LaHarpe’s wellness center and the VFW in Moran.
It also oversaw the disbursement of $2.4 million in federal COVID-19 funds, relieving county officials of a huge responsibility.
Most recently, Thrive’s economic development arm worked with local stakeholders to bring Sharky’s Pub & Grub to Iola and was instrumental in luring Jock’s Nitch Sporting Goods to downtown. In 2020, it helped entice Peerless Products to open a manufacturing site in Iola.
Thrive also was instrumental in securing BNIM, a Kansas City-based architectural firm, to renovate Iola’s three elementary schools into housing units — a $20 million investment — as well as bringing developer Rocky Meo of De Soto to renovate the long-abandoned Arkhaven Nursing Home into 51 one- and two-bedroom apartment units.
Also in the works is a coordinated effort with Paul Cloutier of A Bolder Humboldt to increase entrepreneurship and develop a culinary/hospitality program in the county.
According to Jonathon Goering, Thrive’s economic development director, these successes are just the tip of the iceberg.
“Allen County has so much potential,” he said Monday afternoon.
But he can’t do it alone.
His dream? “To build an economic development program.”
Not a position, but a program where additional employees could help him tap into the myriad resources available to help Allen County communities grow their businesses and industries, stabilize their downtowns and increase their marketing footprint.
“It’s not that we’re not appreciative of the funds we get,” Goering said of his position’s $70,000 stipend, his voice trailing off.
We’ll finish his sentence.
We are hamstringing our potential.
In fact, a year-long study by Atlas Community Studios said Allen County should devote $500,000 this year and $600,000 in 2023 to economic development if it wants to move the needle.
“Well, that’s pie in the sky,” Goering said.
But that’s what Labette County does. And Chanute, Bourbon County and Montgomery County each put about $250,000-$300,000 a year toward the single purpose of making their communities better and stronger.
GOERING’S JOB is more than just recruiting new industries and businesses.
“In a rural area, especially, economic development is a blend of community development,” he said, and includes quality-of-life services like expanding options for childcare, transportation, recreation and healthcare as well as good-paying jobs. “It’s paying attention to the quality of a place.”
A good example is how the Prairie Spirit Rail Trail to Iola and the Southwind Rail Trail to Humboldt helped spur economic development. For Iola, the rail trail was a draw for Velo+ bike shop of Lenexa to open a second store here in 2017. For Humboldt, the southern terminus of the 6.5-mile Southwind trail led to the development in 2020 of Base Camp, a high-end camping and recreation site. Still to be developed is “The Last Mile,” a mile-long trail and sidewalk to connect the trail to downtown Humboldt.
And while it’s hard to put a dollar figure on what the trails bring to the region, neither Iola’s bike shop nor Humboldt’s Base Camp would have launched without them.
The same can be said for the value of having a hospital, investing in our schools and offering high quality entertainment venues.
OVER THE PAST several weeks Goering has discussed Thrive’s role with city and county leaders and asked that they consider upping their commitment. Currently, Iola, Allen County and Iola Industries pay $20,000 apiece, and Humboldt, $10,000.
It took a relative newcomer, Iola Administrator Matt Rehder, to see the big picture.
“$70,000 doesn’t do it at all. $70,000 doesn’t even cover expenses,” Rehder said at the June 27 Iola council meeting.
Rehder proposed the city increase its annual investment from $20,000 to about $50,000, utilizing a tax increase for the funding.
“I think we should start the process,” Rehder said.
If Humboldt were to follow suit, it would pay about $15,000 annually, and Allen County about $230,000, pushing the total investment to about $300,000 a year.
“That’s a very good first step,” Rehder said.
As it is, “he (Goering) doesn’t leave the county,” he said. “We want him to go out to trade shows, where he can play up Iola and Allen County. Right now, he doesn’t have the funding to do it.”
IN THEIR GOAL to be fiscally conservative, our leaders should not only consider the many times over their investment with Thrive has been returned, but also embrace raising the bar.
Settling for scratching the surface is not enough.
— Susan Lynn