When it comes to economic development, Hays city commissioners said Thursday “everything has to be on the table.”
The commissioners at Thursday’s work session discussed the need for Hays to attract new businesses and how the city could be involved in that process. The discussion was requested by Commissioner Henry Schwaller IV, who noted there are two significant challenges.
“The local economy is crippled by low oil prices. We’ve seen a reduction in production and new wells, as well as commodity prices for agriculture,” Schwaller said.
“The other trend, which is a bit more disturbing and even more out of our control, is that the nature of retail is changing dramatically.”
Schwaller cited a national survey of retail stores that indicated their No. 1 concern is the rise of Amazon and online shopping sites. Nationwide, large chains have announced massive store closures in efforts to trim costs.
Despite that, Schwaller also presented a lengthy list of retailers that are bucking the trend by continuing to open more stores, and said the city should be doing all it can to draw in new shopping opportunities. That list includes companies such as TJ Maxx, Dick’s Sporting Goods and ALDI, all of which would be desirable, Schwaller said.
The City of Hays relies exclusively on sales tax receipts to finance its general operating fund, and commissioners repeatedly have expressed concern over lagging sales during the past year. The discussion also comes after the commission reduced funding by half for the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development, citing frustration with the group’s outcomes.
“My point is that if we want to do something about sales tax, then we need to take action,” Schwaller said. “It’s pretty clear in this retail environment where the majority of stores are not adding, but these stores are, it’s going to take something special. The question really is open-ended, and it’s for the commission to decide. What are we willing to do? How far are we willing to go?”
Commissioners spoke in favor of sending city representatives to national trade shows that might provide opportunities to connect with national retailers. Commissioner Lance Jones also asked if the city could hire a staff member to assist with economic development.
“I don’t think we can wait,” Jones said. “If we want to do this, we’ve got to go after these companies and we need to recruit them.”
Plans are in the works for a possible turn-around road structure on north Vine Street that could help improve access to businesses. The Kansas Department of Transportation has indicated some funds might be available, and the commission will receive an update later this month, City Manager Toby Dougherty said. It’s hoped better street access would be more inviting to Interstate 70 travelers and potential business developers.
Several commissioners said the city should take every opportunity to show it is “open for business” and willing to work with developers.
“I think we need to be open to everybody,” Commissioner Sandy Jacobs said. “And if we truly know there’s people wanting to be here, we should be on their doorstep talking to them — or change the way we’re going to run the city if we don’t care about sales tax.”
While much of the development focus has been on north Vine Street, Jacobs said the city should remain open to potential projects throughout the community.
The commission also discussed challenges the city faces along the way, with high prices of land and housing mentioned multiple times. High real estate prices have been cited as a hindrance to development, and Vice Mayor James Meier expressed frustration with the fact landowners often try to sell for far more than the property’s appraised value.
“There has to be some reality here about land prices, and that’s something we can’t do. It’s something that I think has to happen on a community-level discussion,” Meier said. “It’s their land. And that’s just it — they’re welcome to continue to have it listed for twice what it’s actually worth and to never sell it.”
The city earlier this week announced an offer to give away 1.26 acres of land on West 10th Street if a developer is willing to build a retail or residential complex on the site.
It also was noted development in rural Ellis County has come to a “grinding halt,” referring to a lawsuit the Ellis County Commission is facing over rejection of a proposed residential development plat late last year.
“It’s not just about growing population within the city limits of Hays, but growing population outside the city of Hays, and that’s come to a grinding halt because of things that are happening in the county. Not that that’s the fault of any one person in particular — I guess actually, it is,” Meier said. “But that’s the fact. And it needs to be said. That’s hurting us.”
Meier also said he believes many of the city’s problems are related to sluggish population growth, and he suggested that’s a larger issue that should be addressed regionally. Hays’ population is climbing, while most of the surrounding region is shrinking. But the rate of growth isn’t enough to offset the total loss in northwest Kansas.
High housing costs were cited as one possible factor that could be hindering population growth within city limits.
“People don’t want to bring their families here and live in houses that have been retrofitted for college kids, and that’s what our housing is,” Jones said. “We don’t have apartments for families; we don’t have affordable housing. My definition of affordable housing is if you have two people working a job, they should be able to afford to buy a nice house here, a decent house. And you just can’t do that in Hays.”
The city has commissioned a housing study and will be discussing its results later this month.