Gates Corporation’s announcement of substantial expansion of its Iola plant was the highlight of an economic development report David Toland gave Allen County commissioners Tuesday morning.
Iola, the county and Iola Industries jointly fund countywide economic development efforts, to the tune of $20,000 each. Commissioners renewed their financial commitment at the same level for 2015.
While the Gates announcement — reported in Tuesday’s Register — was the plum of Toland’s report, several other items were of interest to commissioners. Toland is executive director of Thrive Allen County.
GATES IS the largest private employer (about 650) in southeast Kansas. Meanwhile, Humboldt’s B&W Trailer Hitches has taken second place in the county at about 400, just ahead of Russell Stover Candies.
Broadband connectivity is a concern for many companies, those here and others that might consider the area. LaHarpe Communications has wired LaHarpe with fiber optic cable and the next step is to find ways to extend that to Iola and Humboldt. Several local companies have headquarters elsewhere and high-speed Internet service is important.
During 2014, Thrive, the economic group’s umbrella, responded to three proposals from industries seeking sites, though none found local opportunities to meet their needs. A variety of retail inquiries also surfaced, with 17 of them given assistance.
A supermarket for Iola has been a priority the past two years and 11 companies have been contacted. G&W Foods was on the cusp of building here, but its preferred site ran afoul of environmental contamination and plans were scuttled by the Environmental Protection Agency. Save-A-Lot announced its desire for an owner-operator to open an Iola store, but to date a suitable fit has been found.
To help with recruitment, demographic profiles have been produced for Gas, Humboldt, Iola, LaHarpe and Moran.
Thrive has proposed a housing study of Iola, Gas and LaHarpe that would help developers when they consider construction or rehabilitation of existing structures.
Industrial sites are in short supply in Allen County, with none “shovel ready.” Ray Pershall Industrial Park at the north edge of Iola is built out, with one remaining site spoken for. Humboldt’s industrial park also is full. A commonality for industrial expansion is a large site with utilities and often rail service. Humboldt and Moran have rail; Iola does not. A study to determine cost of developing an industrial/business park is on the horizon.
With Allen County’s unemployment rate at 3.8 percent — well below the state level — finding employees for current industries, much less new ones, is difficult. Filling third (night) shifts is difficult.
Nine tours of the old Allen County Hospital, including one Monday, have occurred, with prospects ranging from the Veterans Administration to nursing home to medical clinic to mental health providers. Lack of success is laid to the facility being too large, too costly to renovate and its large number of small rooms. Realistically, Toland said, the majority of the building might need to be razed so the site could be developed for housing or commercial purposes.
While three of Allen County’s four largest employers — Gates, Russell Stover and Herff Jones — were sold in 2014, results so far have been positive. Gates announced its expansion and Russell Stover’s new owner, Lindt, has been positive about its Iola plant.
Recruitment of medical professionals continues. A family practice physician is expected to move to Allen County later this year. A dentist and his family are considering Allen County.
The Veterans Administration and Allen County Regional Hospital are negotiating an agreement that would provide some services for veterans, save patients from driving to Topeka, Wichita or Leavenworth and enhance ACRH’s income. Sleep studies and cataract surgery are among services being considered.
A graph Toland handed commissioners showed the lion’s share of the development group’s budget, about $44,000 (of $61,00 spent) went to staffing. Travel came in at nearly $7,500, printing, data and marketing, $6,700.
IN OTHER NEWS, commissioners:
— Approved purchase of a John Deere road maintainer from Murphy Tractor for $213,342 with trade-in of an older unit.
— Heard a presentation from Susan Galemore, Southeast Kansas Regional Planning representative, about Community Development Block Grants and services the group provides in grant writing and administration. Grants may be used for such things as community infrastructure work, economic development and commercial rehabilitation.
— An engineering firm will be engaged to plan the county’s next bridge project northwest of Petrolia. Construction, with Kansas Department of Transportation support of as much as $120,000, is expected in 2016. Bill King, director of Public Works, said a low-water bridge northeast of Petrolia would be removed from the county’s official system; the road that runs over it dead ends shortly thereafter.
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