By ROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times
New businesses are coming into place in Liberal. New schools have been built. Housing projects are also taking shape around town, and some businesses are even getting new buildings to operate from.
With all this in mind, the economic picture for the community seems to be going into an upward swing. Some community leaders are worried, though, about the possibility of some of the city’s larger employers shutting down.
The investment advisory firm, ICM (Institutional Capital Management), is working with those leaders in an attempt to prevent such situations.
ICM reps met with the local Council of Governments in February to start talks about helping in the matter. Seward County Administrator April Warden said the company helps public agencies invest idle funds.
In addition, ICM is heavily involved with both the National Association of Counties and the Kansas Association of Counties. Warden said she was able to attend the November 2017 annual KAC meeting, at which ICM officials spoke.
Former Seward County employee Crystal Clemens is among those working for ICM, based in Colorado, and Warden said based on what she saw at the KAC meeting, the company was asked to come to Liberal to allow officials from Seward County and other local entities to see if they may be interested in hearing what the company had to offer.
“They come in, and they can look at your community dynamics and resources that you have in your community and determine what projects the different entities may have on the horizon,” she said. “They review our tax base. They perform a cash flow analysis. They look at who the top 10 taxpayers are and who our top 10 employers are in our county. They look at what type of growth Seward County is experiencing. They kind of consider what the infrastructure needs are that go along with growth or potential growth that you want, and they’re big proponents of small businesses that can help build your tax base so that you’re not relying on big industry.”
Warden said local leaders have seen the effects of having big industry leave a community.
“It can really kill a community so to speak if they leave,” she said. “ICM is out there to protect rural communities and provide them assistance on how to identify and keep up with change and to focus on what your community has to offer and how you can possibly build on.”
As part of the presentation, ICM officials talked about a co-op and how communities can take a team approach to economic development.
“We even tried to reach out to some of the smaller counties around us to see if it was something that they wanted to partake in,” Warden said. “It was really to try figure out how to get everyone together.”
ICM officials will be back in Liberal next Wednesday and Thursday to do a co-op training with county leaders and leaders from Seward County Community College and Southwest Medical Center.
“I think Rep. Shannon Francis is going to sit in just to kind of see what the training’s all about and what it has to offer,” Warden said. “I think Taylor Harden, as an individual, he’s going to try to sit in as well.”
Warden said a co-op is a two-day seminar such as next week’s to learn the core concepts of sound public fund management.
“They specifically focus on rural communities,” she said.
After the seminar, Warden said ICM will provide 90 days of support, including e-mail and telephone, at no charge.
“They do three one-hour Web-X seminars for questions and answers so that they we can continue to apply what we learned in that two-day seminar,” she said. “They do complete an individual cash flow and tax base analysis for us with an individual portfolio design for each of the entities that participate in the co-op.”
Warden said ICM officials like the direction Seward County, the City of Liberal and the community as a whole has come together to build a joint comprehensive plan and relook at local economic development models.
“They feel like this training’s going to go hand in hand with what we’re trying to accomplish there as well,” she said. “We’re just hoping that all of this comes together and can help us accomplish the long-term goal that we have of strategic planning, a joint comprehensive plan, an economic development model and what we can do to sustain our rural economy and the growth that we have here in Seward County. What does our infrastructure look like? What are other ways that we can build off of the resources that we have already here to make ourselves a stronger community?”
Part of what will be learned from the seminar, Warden said, is when and how ideas can be implemented to help with the local economy.
“I think it’s going to be an informative piece that allows us to look at some of that and to look at, especially as we’re getting into the budget work sessions in July and finalizing a budget in August, how this all can come together,” she said.
Warden said she feels the need for a training such as this is present in Seward County.
“I feel like it too goes hand in hand in what we’re trying to accomplish right now in looking at a community approach, in looking at our comprehensive plan, the future land use, all of the different things we’re looking at and also the type of economic development that we want for our community,” she said. “If you ask me as an individual, I think it’s very important, and I think it will be very beneficial as another tool for us as we start doing this.”
Warden said she likewise sees the training tying directly into what local leaders are trying to accomplish.
“I see it as another tool and another resource we have in trying to reach that ultimate goal,” she said.
Warden said she believes what ICM is doing will look at all areas of the local economy, including retail, food service, industry, housing and even tourism.
“I think it will encompass all of that and take a look at everything we need to consider, and I think it will take a look what we have in place and maybe what we don’t have in place to help us sustain that,” she said.
Warden, like many, feels that housing is a shortfall in Liberal, and she said it is also a huge piece of any comprehensive plan and economic development.
Warden added what happens with ICM will likely affect more than just Seward County, as officials in other nearby communities have been approached about participating in this project.
“I think sometimes if you can do things in partnership with surrounding communities, it can be a benefit to everyone involved, not just yourself, and Seward County is in such a unique position when you’re surrounded by smaller counties and also different states,” she said. “I think you take into consideration those things. Those can be assets to our communities. I think we were talking to other smaller counties around us.”
Warden said even the more heavily populated counties of Southwest Kansas, Ford and Finney, were contacted.
“It’s hard to get everybody together,” she said. “I think it would’ve been beneficial if we all could’ve been in the same two-day seminar, but it didn’t work out that way. We’ll go with the entities that we have right now that can come in June, but I think anytime you can build relationships outside of your community to partnership with others, it’s a good thing.”
Warden said this likewise makes for more funding sources and additional resources to tap into.
“You can definitely learn from each other, and a lot of times, what we might not be getting right here in our county but another smaller surrounding county gets, it can benefit us as well,” she said. “I do think it’s a continual working relationship that you try to build with each other.”
Warden said local officials are continually looking at how to improve things such as reaching existing constituents and bringing youth back to the community.
“As people age and as people get older, are we able to take care of our seniors, or do we have the resources that we need here for a thriving community, for a great quality of life?” she said. “I see where all of these things tie into that, and I think that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Warden said every community has challenges, and one challenge Seward County has in particular is the local labor market.
“Unemployment rate’s low,” she said. “Everybody wants growth, but I think you have to one, support the businesses you already have here and help them and two, you have to bring in things that are going to draw more people so you have a larger labor pool. It doesn’t do us a whole lot of good when each organization is trying to pull the same individuals to work for them, and you end up, for lack of a better word, stealing employees from each other.”
Budget time is nearing for some government entities, and something else Warden said will likely be learned next week is how much will need to budgeted to make what ICM teaches happen.
“We have been trying to diligently do our research with other communities to see what they’ve had to pay for these different types of processes,” she said. “As we talked about developing our comprehensive plan, we would like to use somebody in the local area that knows our community, that has a passion for it, that will be able to draw the information from the community, do different activities to involve the community to really get their feedback so that it is truly a community plan.”
For this reason, Warden said she did not have any numbers available as to how much money would need to be spent.
“I can tell you that we’ve been researching that and trying to figure out and also work with the different agencies like the city to know ‘If we’re looking at this, how can we jointly do this to where it doesn’t hit each agency as hard as it would if we were trying to accomplish this individually?’” she said.