Good Luck

June 06th, 2023
L&T Opinions Page

earl wattL&T Publisher Earl Watt


Last week the Seward County Development Corporation met with representatives of the City of Liberal and Seward County in an effort to combine the efforts of the city and county as well as other local interests into one cohesive board. The effort is appropriate, but there are many details that will be important to know moving forward.

To get criticism out of the way first, it is not only disrespectful but disappointing that City Economic Director Cindy Wallace went into this meeting blind and had to ask what her future would be. For the first time, and in public, Wallace was told by City Commissioner Jose Lara that her position would no longer exist with the City of Liberal, but she could apply with the SCDC if she wanted a job.

No matter the feelings toward Wallace, this is not how she should have been notified about her future. Commissioners or city leaders should have discussed with her what the options would be before she attended a public meeting and saw that her name was not listed as an employee of what would be the combined economic development tool of the city and county. To have to ask at a public meeting shows a lack of communication between the vision the commission may have with what the staff is trying to accomplish.

It appears the city will be providing equal funding for the organization, which in essence doubles the budget for the SCDC while completely eliminating the budget for the City of Liberal, or at least that appears to be the case.

That’s why we need to know more about the plan.

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Wallace has a contract through November, so any approval of the joint SCDC prior to that will result in either duplicative funding or an effort to dismiss Wallace prior to the end of her contract.

When Mayor Jeff Parsons was running for Liberal City Commission, he mentioned how much better an effort can be with two full time people working to enhance the local economy instead of one. So far, we haven’t heard any assurances that the SCDC would add an additional person along with current Director Eli Svaty.

Wallace is not as high-spirited as Svaty, and obviously he is already the head of the organization and should remain so, but Wallace has scored victories in economic development for the City of Liberal including the recent addition of Dunnam’s Sporting Goods store to fill the vacant JCPenney location. She has helped in the recruitment of other retail outlets and seems interested in continuing her career. The merging process should have been cleaner, but whether Wallace stays or not, the public should know how the organization’s structure is expected to look moving forward, and how many people will be involved.

There is the question about the City of Liberal’s 1-cent sales tax, and the portion of that tax that funds economic development. Since the city will no longer have a department for economic development, how will those funds be handled, who will make the decisions on their expenditures, and will the plan provided by the community through the Focus on the Future Committee, which already set priorities for the use of the 1-cent sales tax economic development fund, be honored?

But the elephant in the room continues to be the lack of a community-wide plan. No, not a comprehensive plan for city departments or county departments. No, not even the town hall meetings currently taking place for Seward County Community College. Those are all necessary and good and need to occur, but none of them replace a community-wide, all-encompassing plan to answer two very basic questions — What kind of community do we want to be, and how do we get there?

The first group that needs to know the answer to those questions after the elected boards would be the SCDC. How do we know what type of businesses we want to attract without a plan? How do we know what type of industrial park we should develop, if any, without a plan? How do we know if the community supports/desires a focus on retail, industrial, cultural, agricultural or academic growth? Any one of these, or a combination, provides a direction. But until we ask the question, the answer will continue to drift along the breeze just out of grasp.

The SCDC cannot determine this by itself. Nor can the city or county commissions.

Developing a community vision requires a process that engages all facets of our community. We are each stakeholders, and any attempt to set a course without buy-in through participation is doomed to fail.

For more than a year Svaty not only handled his job as director of the SCDC, but he also led the communication effort for Seward County in dealing with coronavirus.

Now that the threat has been dissipated, and there is an effort to unify city and county in economic development, there is no better time to work on a community-wide plan for our future.

Doubling the SCDC budget is good, but like money thrown at schools, without a plan, how will we know we are succeeding?

I implore our leaders to announce a process to engage the community in developing a community-wide plan. Every other effort is secondary to establishing a common vision.