The Development Dilemma

Warrensburg’s new strip center along Maguire Street is getting a Little Caesars Pizza and a gourmet hot dog shop.

Central Plaza's first tenants along Maguire Street.

Sedalia is getting Panera Bread and Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers.

It appears the economic development spoils are steadily trickling to the maple leaf city to the east. A person can only buy so much crazy bread (does anyone eat their pizza?). Gourmet hot dogs? You can’t bank on an oxymoron.

Overall, Warrensburg is in retreat. The vacant storefront isn’t the kind of trend we need to propagate.

And staring at us in the face is a large vacant lot at the corner of U.S. 50 and 13 Highway – our welcome mat to the community, our gateway to nowheresville.

An outdated hotel once stood there, and was to be replaced by an upscale hotel and convention center. The developer’s plans were recently smothered by the City Council, which refused to entertain any talk about tax increment financing.

My frustration on this is palpable. Frankly, I’m tired of driving to Kansas City, Lee’s Summit and Sedalia to shop and eat out.

But all’s not lost.

Tracy Brantner and the Johnson County Economic Development Corporation are working behind the scenes to identify holes in the local economy and ways we can become more attractive to new businesses.

Traditionally, Brantner said the JCEDC focuses on “primary employers,” those industries involved in wealth creation as opposed to service-based companies – manufacturers over retail.

Recently, the JCEDC switched gears to look at the big picture. They created the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Task Force to study wealth creation and startups – in other words, retail and industry.

I cringe at the term, but this task force is necessary. Someone needs to put on the smock, paint by numbers and hold the picture up to the light so we can clearly see the good and the ugly.

Our local leaders, armed with good data, should then be better equipped to approach the types of businesses we crave. More importantly, they can approach the types of businesses we leave town to visit.

“What we’re learning is we don’t know enough about our own product in order to market effectively, wisely or even to have a conversation with potential businesses here,” Brantner said.

The task force is still working on that picture for us. So far, it has identified some significant gaps in the economy. The top five are quite obvious – food and beverage, car dealers, electronics, health and personal care and clothing.

The Air Force base and university are tremendous economic engines, but we have nothing to offer them.

So, they go to Sedalia, which has a broad geographic area and population that retailers like to see. Or, they go to suburban Kansas City, which is way ahead of us on using creative financing, primarily building major shopping centers with TIF. A TIF redirects portions of sales and property taxes back into a development.

Warrensburg city leaders are stingy on that issue.

“But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have the conversation,” Brantner said. “I think done in a healthy environment and an honest environment I think that’s a good conversation to have, but we have to be research-based, fact-based about what’s making up that decision.”

The question remains – what is our community willing to provide? The city already said “No” to Jerry Franklin and a TIF for a new hotel and retail center at our city’s gateway, U.S. 50 and 13 Highway. Our population numbers are decent, at least when school’s in session. Is competition from surrounding cities too great? Is creative financing the answer? These are questions the JCEDC task force hopes to answer.

When it comes to creative financing and using public funds, the community should be at the table during these conversations.

It appears we may have such an opportunity. A discussion on the city’s Innovative Financing Development Guide is queued up as a City Council agenda item, according to a recent city manager report.

It’s not clear when that will be an actual agenda item. When it does happen, people need to come and tell the council how it feels about using public funds to help attract the kinds of stores we want here.

The JCEDC task force is still working on its study, and Brantner said they are shooting for October to have it finished. However, the task force has released a report on Warrensburg commercial growth at: http://www.growjocomo.com/?page_id=786.

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  1. #1 by Ben Pierce on January 26, 2012 - 12:48 am

    Great post. Several of us are making downtown a better place to live. Once we reach a “tipping point” of upscale apartments, restaurants and clothing stores and so on will have a reason to locate there. First we have to make Warrensburg a great place to live. Once that, businesses will WANT to locate here. Students will want to stay here and develop businesses and work for other businesses that WANTED to locate here. It starts with US; not them. Otherwise, we simply have industry in Warrensburg with nobody wanting to LIVE here.

    We can’t raise taxes to make improvements. Taxes decrease the desirability of a location. Our taxes are already as high as cities that have given tax increment financing and other programs to attract business.

    We can’t lower taxes to attract industry; we will create a need for infrastructure support without a financing mechanism.

    Warrensburg Main Street Economic Restructuring Committee has been considering ways to make people want to live here, and business consequently desiring to locate here, hopefully without tax breaks for those coming to town or raising taxes for those already living in town.

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