Post-pandemic life — whenever that begins — is likely to feature a race. It will be between communities looking to prosper. Local leaders are betting that the winners will be those communities that have the ability and resources to adjust to the new environment left in the wake of the pandemic.
Leaders with The Chamber and the Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence and Douglas County on Tuesday evening kicked off a new phase in that effort with the launch of a $2.5 million, five-year fundraising campaign to support economic development initiatives ranging from traditional activities like industrial attraction to less standard programs like the creation of new workforce child-care programs.
Leaders announced that a quiet phase of the campaign — dubbed Rising Together — already had raised $2.17 million of the $2.5 million goal. (Full disclosure: The Journal-World was part of a group of about 65 businesses and organizations that made financial pledges during the quiet phase of the campaign.) A key selling point in the fundraising campaign thus far has been the new set of opportunities the community has.
“There is no question, in my mind at least, that the next 30 years for Lawrence are very positive,” Russ Johnson, president and CEO of LMH Health and a co-chair of the fundraising campaign, told a crowd gathered at KU’s Innovation Park on West Campus. “When we look at what is happening across our country and on the coasts and the cost of living and frankly some of the climate issues, people are going to look to the Midwest as a place to live and work.
“And over the last year, we just proved to ourselves that you can live anywhere and work remotely. That’s going to become more and more true, not less and less. And so communities like Lawrence with all it has to offer, the quality of life, the sense of attachment … that is going to attract people no matter what. But Rising Together seeks to seize the qualities and leverage them for a much more profound future.”
The $2.5 million goal is a significant increase from the approximately $1.7 million The Chamber and the Economic Development Corporation raised as part of the last five-year campaign, which ended earlier this year.
The campaign has set a couple of broad goals related to jobs and dollars that will be attracted to the community at the end of the five-year campaign. Leaders are projecting that 1,500 new jobs will be created by businesses that have either been attracted or expanded with the assistance of the Rising Together campaign. When I say assistance, that doesn’t necessarily mean the companies will have directly gotten money or incentives from the Rising Together fund, but could mean the company was attracted to the community by marketing and outreach efforts that were funded by the Rising Together dollars.
The leaders also are projecting that those 1,500 jobs will add about $72 million in payroll to the local economy. The campaign has set a goal to attract jobs that pay at least $5,000 above the current median wage in the county, which would put the new positions with a starting annual wage of about $38,000 per year.
Those broad goals are noteworthy, but some of the more interesting details from the fundraising pitch come from the shorter-term projects and initiatives that economic development officials are proposing. Here’s a look at some of those:
• Over the next five years, money from the campaign will be used to create 250 new “affordable infant/toddler child-care slots” for working parents in Douglas County.
• Provide financial support to assist 100 minority or women job seekers — 20 per year for five years — who are looking to work in “critically needed positions” in Douglas County. The campaign materials gave examples of software developers and several building trade positions as current occupations in critical need, but also indicated that a more formal and comprehensive list would be developed. Presumably, the financial assistance could be for needed training and other certifications the jobs require.
• Establish a $500,000 revolving loan fund that could provide financing to minority and women applicants who want to start a business in Douglas County.
• Within three years have enough land annexed — presumably mostly in Lawrence but also in places like Baldwin City, Eudora and Lecompton — that would support 800 new housing units. Beyond that, though, the fundraising group has set a goal of having 300 new single-family housing permits issued per year. For some perspective, Lawrence last year issued 168 single-family building permits. It has been more than a decade since Lawrence has approached 300 single-family building permits per year.
• On the industrial front, the group wants to have 100 acres of land zoned and annexed within three to five years so that it is shovel-ready for industrial businesses that want to build new plants or facilities in the community. The city still does have industrial land ready for development at VenturePark on the eastern edge of Lawrence, but the recent construction of the Pretzels Inc. food plant and the U.S. Engineering sheet metal fabrication plant took two of the larger lots in the development and have leaders thinking they need to get more land in reserve.
• In terms of the type of businesses that economic development officials will spend the most time trying to attract, the group has created four categories to focus upon: advanced manufacturing; information technology; engineering and design; and scientific research and development.
There was at least one other detail that was fairly interesting in the campaign materials. It was on the list of companies and organizations that have made pledges to the campaign. There are a significant number of KU entities that have pledged, which wasn’t necessarily the case during the last five-year campaign. Among the 65 earlier donors in the campaign are the University of Kansas, the KU Alumni Association, KU Endowment, Kansas Athletics and KU Innovation Park.
If you remember, KU Innovation Park is the new name for the incubator facility formerly known as the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on West Campus. Innovation Park encompasses that facility and the expansion that is under construction at the site, but it really involves a larger plan to build multiple facilities on West Campus that could house both researchers and businesses that want to be close to KU faculty and students.
That Innovation Park project would be the biggest sign in years that KU is ramping up its local economic development efforts, but the visibility that KU is lending to this capital campaign is another sign. KU Chancellor Douglas Girod served as an honorary co-chair of the fundraising campaign.
“Lawrence is a special place with unique assets that contribute to a diverse economy and outstanding quality of life,” Girod said in a statement. “The Rising Together campaign will ensure we are positioned to build on these assets and find new ways to grow our economy, address challenges, and empower our citizens to succeed for generations to come.”