By JONATHAN ZWEYGARDT
The Ellis County Commission and the Hays City Commission met in a joint meeting Tuesday at Hays City Hall and among the topics for discussion was economic development within Ellis County.
A number of the members expressed frustration with the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development and expressed the need to trim the size of its board.
Hays City Commissioner James Meier said after attending a recent coalition meeting he does not believe they are interested in helping spur retail development in Ellis County.
“The impression that I got from that board was that they didn’t really feel like that was their responsibility,” said Meier “That they felt like it was more employment-based.”
County Commissioner Barb Wasinger, coalition board member, said the last director of the coalition was “faulted for being too involved in retail.”
“The coalition has evolved. They obviously went from being very retail-oriented and moved to the other end of the spectrum,” Wasinger said.
City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs, who also serves on the coalition board, said she wanted to hear from the coalition as what its goals are.
“If we – the county or the city – are expected to provide some type of subsidy, I certainly think there’s an opportunity for us to set some guidelines on what we’d like to see happen,” she said.
But she said the city and county have not been clear about what they expect of the coalition and said she would like for both commissions to do that and give the coalition time to accomplish those goals. She also added the director should expect that from the coalition board as well.
“I’m not sure that is being done today,” she said.
City Commissioner Henry Schwaller previously served on the coalition board and said they have not had follow through on what they expect.
Schwaller said the city commission has had discussions about not funding the coalition and allowing the coalition to set its own priorities.
The City of Hays and Ellis County are the two biggest financial supporters of the coalition, and Schwaller said, since the proposed truck stop at exit 157 on Interstate 70 fell through, they have asked the coalition to screen applicants for receiving tax incentives.
“They’ve done a really good job with that,” Schwaller said, “so I would be reluctant to cut their funding.”
County Commissioner Marcy McClelland said she believes the coalition should be working to bring in manufacturing business and jobs to the county and questioned its message.
“I really don’t think that they have come through with helping us to understand what they are doing and it makes me wonder if that’s the picture that they’re giving to people that are coming in and asking questions,” said McClelland.
City Commissioner Shaun Musil said they need to be more proactive when it comes to selling Hays and Ellis County.
“We had issues (with) the truck stop and people say, ‘Well nobody wants to build in Hays,’ ” but Musil said “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
But he questioned if Coalition Executive Director Aaron White is being given the tools and the directive to help grow Ellis County.
“We’ve changed our development policy,” Musil said. “I think it’s a good policy, I mean it’s evident, we’ve got some stuff going on.”
City Commissioner Lance Jones said he believes that, given a direction, the coalition will be successful.
“I was probably as upset as anybody when the truck stop didn’t go through,” Jones said. “When we sat down and redid the policy, that was part of the clear guidance that we gave to Aaron and the Economic Development Coalition at the time, and they’ve done an excellent job with that clear guidance.”
County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst said he was unaware of the change to the city’s change in economic policy and contacted by one of the developers who was part of the truck stop, who was very critical of Hays’ policy.
According to Haselhorst, the developer said there is no one promoting Hays. He said Garden City and Colby are doing a good job a promoting their communities and working with developers — and it is paying off.
“We need to promote Hays if we’re going to get people here,” Haselhorst said.
Haselhorst also said there are businesses in Hays that have not asked for taxpayer funding and said “that needs to be recognized also.”
Many of the commissioners, including Meier, agreed that the coalition board is too big.
“To me, restructuring the board and making it effective is something that needs to happen in the next few months and not over the next year,” Meier said. “I think that will be a good indication as to whether or not they want to move forward and be successful.”
There are 25 members on the coalition board.
“We just need to be sure that we’ve done our part to try to make them successful. If we do our part and they are not successful, then we will have other conversations down the road,” said Meier.