Gardner has an opportunity to grow by choice or by chance, a panel of experts told audience members during a city-hosted economic development symposium on March 11.
Panelists included Owen Buckley, a developer; Bruce Kimmel, a financial advisor; Bob Marcusse, President and CEO of the Kansas City Area Development Council; former Mayor of Kansas City, Kan., Joe Reardon; and Dotty Riley, a bond attorney.
Mayor Chris Morrow said one goal of the symposium was to send a message to potential developers.
“We want tonight to serve as one more big, loud signal for the business community that Gardner, Kansas,.. is open for business and not just a little bit,” Morrow told the audience of about 35 people.
The symposium was the culmination of several weeks of planning, and it attracted several high-level officials including Johnson County Board of Commissioners Chair Ed Eilert and Secretary of Transportation, Mike King.
“Gardner has grown substantially,” Cheryl Harrison-Lee, city administrator, said prior to introducing panelists. “What we’ve seen has been an unhealthy balance of residential to commercial development.”
The city must work to grow its commercial tax base, Harrison-Lee said. A large retailer supplies the same revenue to city hall as approximately 1,000 residential homes, and a large industrial project — even with a 50 percent tax abatement — draws revenues about equal to 301 homes.
“The days of the city of Gardner not being in the business of economic development are long gone,” she said. “We must engage in some type of commercial development.”
The panelists each talked about the tools the city can use to attract projects.
Marcusse said one key is recognizing that Gardner, Johnson County and the Kansas City region are a product.
“It’s a product that is in competition with lots of other regions across the U.S.,” he said. “Economic development occurs by making sure that product get bigger and better every single year.”
The nuts and bolts of a community — the schools, the roads, the parks — those things help define who and what Gardner is.
“The next thing we all need to be doing is recognizing that we’ve got to keep our existing customers happy,” Marcusse said.
When a local business calls city hall and asks that the street out front be maintained, how the city responds is part of economic development.
An immediate response is taking care of existing customers.
“If the city puts (the problem) on a list and says we’ll get to it when we get to it, that sends a message, too,” he said.
That’s the first level of economic development, and if that’s not done, the next part — selling the community to others — won’t be successful.
One thing many developers hope to see is predictability, Marcusse said.
“Companies want to know if they make an investment in your community that they can count on that investment being well-cared for,” he said.
Riley said there’s been a real evolution of the fiscal tools that cities can use over the years. Those tools include Tax Increment Financing, STAR bonds and abatements.
“The tools have become much more complex,” Riley said. “Cities have become much more proactive about the way they manage the tools.”
If the right policies and plans are in place, they decrease the likelihood of negative economic development results.
“The tools do not guarantee instant economic development,” she said.
Harrison-Lee said knowing where the city wants to go is key.
“A key idea in facilitating economic development is to remember where the city wants to go economically and financially,” she said. “That will help us weigh the risks and rewards as we consider projects.”
Panel talks development at symposium