Franklin County is on the cusp for an economic boom, the new Franklin County Development Council executive director said.
Paul Bean, who has been on the job since November, said everything is in place to attract outside businesses and for current businesses to consider expansion.
“People feel really good about Ottawa and Franklin County from the outside looking in,” Bean said. “They think we are in a great position and things are going to happen. A lot of people are envious to where we are at today. We have so many positive things going on. You have to have your foundation of a quality community, good workforce, good health care and good education. We have all that stuff. We are very blessed. We are a fortunate community. I would put Ottawa and the county up against any place. It is a phenomenal opportunity.”
The city of Ottawa and Franklin County spent millions on developing Proximity Park, a 300-plus acre industrial park, south of Ottawa. Bean said Proximity Park’s infrastructure is nearly complete.
“What I have been told by everybody in the business, the best thing that the county and city did was to build that park,” Bean said. “If you don’t have that there, you are not going to get inquiries. While that is a huge investment and certainly not inexpensive, it is something, if we want to have industrial growth, we had to do. They had the wisdom to do it. We are in the ballgame. Since I came on board in November, we have had multiple inquiries and requests of information about our park. We have a couple that are active right now. That is very exciting.”
Economic growth does not happen without proper planning and leadership, Bean said.
“I am appreciative what the leadership is doing the past few years,” Bean said. “Things just don’t happen. You have to create it. You are starting to see that. We have a lot of great synergy. I am very optimistic and excited about where we are headed. We have such positive leadership in the city, county and school system. You need all those things. We have leadership that is amenable to growth. There are willing to do things to entice growth, but not at any cost. We are ready to grow. They want to manage it. They don’t want to stop it. That is a balance and that is critical.”
Bean said executives looking to come to Franklin County look at a variety of factors and one of those is where the business climate and quality of life issues are headed. The executive director said the recent openings of a new bowling alley, car wash, The Corner Market, Legacy Square, school bond issues, new emergency room, new businesses downtown and the growth in Wellsville show this area is ripe with enthusiasm.
“You drive up Main now and see things being remodeled or added onto that shows economic vitality,” Bean said. “That is absolutely critical when people are looking at a community. You have people investing in the community.”
Location, location, location
Bean said a huge drawing card is location, being on I-35 and near Kansas City, Lawrence and Topeka.
“It is still a small town,” he said. “There is a benefit to that too. Quality of life ... close to the city, close to Lawrence. Ottawa is not backwoods either. We are at a great spot. You drive around and you see new houses, renovation and excitement. That feeds on itself. That is why people around the county say ‘you are in a good spot.’ ”
Bean said another plus is living in a community full of historical architecture and homes.
“Ottawa has a unique personality because of its history,” Bean said. “It is not a cookie-cutter town. It is special in a lot of ways because of the history. (George) Washburn had a big influence around here. The history with the mills, dairies and railroad. It is awesome. That is what builds character.”
Recreational opportunities and events can make a difference in drawing companies to an area. Bean said having the car show, tractor show, fair, the trails and entertainment at Ottawa Memorial Auditorium are huge when it comes to quality of life.
“It is having a big impact,” he said. “It does not happen in a vacuum. We have people willing to (plan) those events. We have a community willing to support it. It is very progressive that way. Quality of life, quality of life, quality of life is huge.”
Bean, who has traveled around the country a lot the past three decades, said Franklin County has a lot to appreciate.
“We should be very proud of who we are, what we are and what we can be,” he said. “That does not exist everywhere. This is a special place and has tremendous opportunity for positive growth.”
Bean said workforce development is a national issue, but can be lessened by working together on a plan.
“The way we differentiate ourselves is to show what we are doing about it,” he said. “Do we have anybody that they can hire? You have to have that. The key is to tell them what we are doing about it. We are starting to get some synergies in place between the school district, Neosho County Community College, industry and commerce department. We are going to be able to say, ‘workforce — like everywhere is a challenge — and this is what we are doing about it.’”
Bean said about a dozen high schools met this week at Ottawa High School to talk about workforce development and in a couple of weeks industry leaders will gather to address those issues.
“We are starting to build a regional workforce plan, not just limited to Franklin County,” Bean said. “Looking at it regionally is big. If we do it regionally, may be there is 30 kids (available). (A business) can pick your five or 10 out of the 30. We are working on building that.”
Bean said Ottawa school superintendent Ryan Cobbs has been at the forefront of helping develop a workforce plan along with NCCC.
“The trades are huge,” he said. “The wages and skillsets are going up because there has not been a pipeline for quite sometime. Dr. Cobbs has done excellent job of being a head of that. You can be in Franklin County and have a wonderful life. You can have a tremendous career. Not everybody has to go to college.”
Workforce development also involves education for current employees.
“We are incredibly interested in supporting the existing businesses,” Bean said. “What are their opportunities to expand or what they could be taking advantage of if they had more workers. How do we help them get those workers so they can increase production? Are there training issues we can provide for them? Neosho County Community College, Ottawa University and the school district is ready. Part of my job is to facilitate those conversations, so they can get into a room and (see) ‘we can do that, so let’s go.’ There are programs the state can provide to help assist with internships, apprenticeships and how they can help find workers. We have great partners in the commerce department. A lot of opportunities there at the high school and post high school levels.”
Bean said a big part of selling companies to the area lies in the hands of the current businesses.
“They are our best advocates if somebody is looking,” he said. “What was your experience like working with the city and county. What was your experience with workforce? What is the stance of local government? Are they progressive? What is the position of the educational network?
“My job is to get the right people at the table based on what their interests and/or concerns are and address those (both) pro and con. My job is not know the answers to everything, but know where to go to get the answers and get the right people in the room. We have a lot of people eager to be apart of that.”
Companies also will look to see the residents take on an area by monitoring message boards.
“If we have positive messages on social media, positive comments, positive events and activities, that is a plus for the community,” Bean said. “When we have negative stuff that does not help us. There are so many positives here, we should extenuate those. They are looking at everything.
“We have the midwest work-ethic in our favor. They know once they have an employee in there they have work ethic that does not exist in other places. What is the community like? What is the region like? We can retain good people. All that comes into play. When you get an RFP (request for proposal) is very narrow. They are looking for a space. It very quickly expands. Once you have met that conversation, it expands to what about your health care, what about your education, what about child care.”
Bean said the relationship between a business and an area needs to be a like a marriage.
“We don’t want just anything,” he said. “You want them to be a good fit from an environmental standpoint and a community standpoint ... what we value and want. A good fit for the type of community we are. We are not going to take anything that comes down the pipeline. That is critically important. You don’t want it to be where you work out a deal and it is great for five or 10 years. You want it to be great for a long, long time.”
He said the right company or companies for Proximity Park take a while to find.
“We all would have liked to have it yesterday,” Bean said. “Is the company a good fit? Not just because they have a checkbook. Do it the right way and do it in a matter of sense of a taxing standpoint, what makes sense from an environmental standpoint and maintain a quality of life. It is all these other things that make it a long-lasting relationship.”
Bean said Proximity Park will be filled by the right partner.
“It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when something that will come to Proximity Park,” he said. “The reality is it takes time. We could have other industry (come). We have other properties available. We have things happening in the county that don’t get as much attention. We have had discussions with people that are looking for things out in the county. It is not just Proximity Park. Wellsville has a ton of space available and they are ready. From a county perspective, Wellsville is at the tip of the spear. I am trying to be more proactive than we have in the past and engaging Wellsville. As the economic director, I am for the county not just Ottawa. I am working on some (proposals) in Richmond. I want to get down to the other communities and say ‘what can we do here (to help). In some cases, it could be housing. I am very county focused.”
Bean is sure of one thing: growth is on the horizon.
“Proximity Park being there helps draw a light to us,” he said. “We are positioning our area in the county very appropriately for what is going to come. I would be shocked if this is not a different place in 10 years.”