By ROBERT PIERCE
• Daily Leader
The nation continues to climb out of its latest recession, but local Joint Economic Development Chairman Dr. Duane Dunn believes Liberal was not hit by the downturn as much as other communities and, therefore, is recovering more quickly.
Dunn said the economy of Liberal is likely stronger than many communities, and its major industries, agriculture, oil and gas, tend to be more stable than most and help keep the local economy stablized.
In order to make the local situation even better, Dunn said the community should look at bringing in food processing plants to assist companies such as National Beef in making retail products such as those in the dairy industry.
“We already have the dairy industry,” he said. “We can capitalize on that to bring other industries in.”
Dunn added talks at recent JEDC meetings have centered around Liberal being a regional recycling and processing center. He said some of that is already being done with the Seward County Landfill with products like mulch and compost, and now, the focus needs to look at other products that can be utilized.
The JEDC director said part of what the group needs to look at is the percentage of youth who are staying in the local area. He said those numbers could be higher than originally thought.
“We just don’t have that information,” he said. “In our annual report, we said we should be marketing to retirees, small businesses, large manufacturing. You have to have a different message for each one of them, so our recommendation is the community needs to be more aggressive.”
Much talk around Liberal has been that the community is anti-business. Dunn said this seems to be an internal perception, rather than an external one, but he said as long as it exists, it needs to be researched to find out what the problems are.
“One of those is if we would have a central point of contact – a person to lead anyone through starting a business,” he said.
Dunn said the Kansas Small Business Development Center at Liberal Area Technical School is a great opportunity for small businesses to find out how to market, package loans and tax filings.
“He’s not set up to do that with a large manufacturing firm,” Dunn said of KSBDC Director Michael O’Kane, however. “He’s restricted on which types of businesses. Patty Tovilla at the Workforce Center can help people find a job and help employers connect with people looking for jobs, but she’s not the one to sit down with them and help them package a loan.”
Dunn said there are many different scattered components in the puzzle, and the JEDC is recommending that the City of Liberal and Seward County work together to come up with a central point of contact to help with zoning, permits and hooking up utilities.
Dunn said rules and regulations to start a business vary from business to business.
“If you run a restaurant, there’s health inspections,” he said. “If you run a manufacturing firm, you have OSHA standards. Again, that goes back to having that central point of contact that knows who to connect that business person with.”
Dunn said economic changes typically affect the east and west coasts of the U.S. more, and the Midwest tends to be buffered from those changes.
“By the time it gets here, it’s not quite as erratic,” he said. “Three years ago, a lot of discussions were that we didn’t have enough houses in Liberal on the real estate market. We continue to hear that, but there’s a lot more houses on the market. We may be finally getting to the right number of houses for people to live in.”
Dunn said a few years ago, lack of housing made it more difficult to attract people to Liberal, but the community may now be getting to the point it needs to be in that area.
“I do think we’re stronger than some of the communities our size,” he said. “We have low unemployment. We have help wanted ads in the newspapers. There’s opportunities out there.”