For economic development organizations, progress is the measuring stick by which success is determined. In Independence, it is no different for the Independence Council for Economic Development.
While our mission has not changed over the 35 years this organization has existed, the methods and strategies have changed drastically. The ultimate goal is to make sure our residents have the best opportunity at economic success and that employers have an environment that they thrive, grow and be profitable.
The EDC always sets annual goals for progress/growth, but a few years ago we added some long-term priorities that we felt were important to measure. We looked at past data and then built some stretch goals that we felt were attainable, albeit not easily attainable within the timeframe allotted. It was going to take some work by everyone in the community to make it happen.
The first goal was raising median household income. From the period of 2000 to 2013, median income increased by 8.7 percent. While this period did include a severe economic downturn and higher unemployment rates, it wasn’t on par with other regional communities that saw higher rates of growth. As a result, many families struggled to keep up with the rising cost of living and revenues that support public services such as police, fire, streets, and parks saw a drop that took seven years to recover back to previous levels between 2007 and 2014.
In 2015, the EDC Board of Directors set a goal of reaching a figure of $50,000 in median household income by the year 2020. This would mean that we would need to achieve 13 percent growth in a five-year period as we came off a period in which we only saw less than 9 percent growth in the 13 previous years. Last year, we achieved our goal two years ahead of schedule as we reached a level of $50,122.
So how did we see such minimal income growth for 13 years and then alter the growth curve so substantially? I think the answer to the first part of that question is a result of lost focus on what really drives economic development success.
If you look back at the early 2000s, Independence was very focused on enhancing the retail areas around the Interstate 70 corridor. We used tax incentives to overcome some barriers to development, but we traded away the financial resources we needed to provide public services. The good news is that many of those tax incentives have started to expire and will continue to do so over the next decade, and that will bring new revenue dollars to our schools and other public services funded by sales taxes.
The influx of retail also created new employment opportunities, but retail jobs won’t grow your median household income. The number one employment sector in Independence is service, but that sector is also among the lowest paying jobs in a community. While it is necessary and vital to have retail and service amenities to serve residents, you don’t want to put all your eggs in that basket.
So what changed in the last few years? I think the biggest change is focusing on what our employment priorities are going to be. It kicked off with the effort to retain the Unilever manufacturing facility on 35th Street. After the sale of the WishBone brand, this facility was on the brink of closure.
Working with Unilever officials, we developed a plan to support the expansion of the plant to support a new product line. It helped us retain over 200 jobs and they have since added another 100 jobs. At the time of the expansion, average wage levels were over $40,000 per year, and those types of jobs will move the needle on median household income.
Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK) continues to hire at Lake City at a wage above regional averages for manufacturing. We also continue to work with other existing companies like Ronson Manufacturing as they expand their operations. We still have much work to do if we want to continue our momentum to grow and attract advanced manufacturing.
Less than 3 percent of industrial space is vacant, but we’ve been unable to attract new speculative industrial construction and that is a top priority right now. While land in the Little Blue Valley is vast, so is the flood plain, which either limits our ability to develop or makes the cost prohibitive without substantial incentives to offset the costs to mitigate.
We are also faced with the challenge that every community is dealing with, and that is workforce. Jobs that used to be very manual-labor-oriented have now shifted to being very mechanized. Even the word labor has become outdated as we’ve shifted from physical exertion to mental capacity because not only do today’s workers have to run the machines, many times they need to be able to program them as well. Success in the next few years may very well be measured by how prepared we are to prepare and train our workforce for the jobs of the future.
In the end, community success isn’t measured by numbers on a spreadsheet. It is measured by the quality of life citizens enjoy. To be able to support their families, to have reliable transportation to get to work, and having that extra income to enjoy a night out occasionally. When we are successful at that, we all win.