The speakers at Friday’s Hays Area Economic Outlook Conference offered a flat view of the region’s economy for the near future, but a glimmer of hope was offered by two panelists.
A large part of that hope, however, depends on the age-old question of how to keep young people from taking their talent elsewhere.
The Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development partnered with Wichita State University’s W. Frank Barton School of Business and its Center for Economic Development and Business Research to present the Hays conference at the Robbins Center at Fort Hays State University. It was the last in the WSU institutions’ series across the state that also included Wichita, Pittsburg, Emporia, Salina and Dodge City.
CEDBR Director Jeremy Hill presented information on local and state employment forecasts and their effect on the economy. While Ellis County employment has seen a slight expansion as of March — the latest data that was available — overall growth from the previous year remained at zero, he said.
That is largely due to the loss of jobs in the mining sector, which includes oil and gas extraction, and affiliated employment sectors.
While other parts of the state have a more diversified economy than Ellis County, the area’s economic base has helped it withstand the downturn in oil and agriculture.
Hill pointed to southwest Kansas as an example, particularly Finney and Ford counties. The meatpacking industry has helped those areas ride out the downturn.
“Garden City and Dodge, they’ve been expanding. They have a much more dynamic economy. They hardly even saw much of the recession,” he said.
He also points to the recent past in Ellis County.
From approximately 2010 to early 2014 — except for a little “hiccup” in 2013 — Ellis County saw growth in employment.
“My optimism is that you had some success. There’s some dynamism in this economy. You created some skilled jobs at one point,” he said.
“The business cycles are what’s weighing you down today,” he said of agriculture and oil. “Will they come back? Absolutely.”
In a panel discussion that concluded the conference, Dan Steffen, regional project manager for the Kansas Department of Commerce, also spoke of how the oil and ag downturns have affected other sectors of the economy.
Steffen is based in Hays and works with north-central and northwest Kansas counties. He’s a Ulysses native and FHSU alumnus.
Data from the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau shows transient guest taxes are increasing, but at the same time, local retail sales tax collections are down, Steffen said.
“Which tells me people are still traveling to Hays and through Hays, they’re just spending less,” he said.
But, he said, businesses in the region are resilient.
“Those businesses that have been around for awhile have become so accustomed to the roller coaster, if you will, of ag and oil. In some cases, they actually see it coming,” he said.
He told of one business he works with, an oil industry supplier, who is preparing for the industry to grow.
“In his mind, based on years in the business, he knows its coming back in 2018. He’s using the time to stockpile and get ready because he’s ridden it out so many times,” he said.
Other companies also are going ahead with plans for other reasons. Steffen said he recently has seen more inquiries about expansion and startups.
“I think some of those companies have gone ahead with plans they put off for several years based on nothing more than being tired of waiting for certainty,” he said.
Scott Sproul, president and CEO of Northwest Kansas Economic Innovation Center, was the other panelist and emphasized the need to find ways to keep talent in northwest Kansas.
Sproul is a Norton native and was economic development director for the city and county. He attended Colby Community College and FHSU. The NWKEIC is a private entity started in 2016 with funds from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation. Based in Norton, it covers 26 counties.
The organization has conducted polls of people from the region who left and started successful businesses, Sproul said. Among the survey’s findings are that people left because they weren’t connected to opportunities to realize their dreams here, and they still have a love for this region.
His organization is working with communities and economic development directors and others to help those people return and to keep young people from leaving in the future.
“They want our talent,” Sproul said of industries outside of Kansas, “and we’ve got to figure out a way to get them back here in their own business ownership.”
Giving entrepreneurs the tools for success is key, but so is working with those companies that recruit northwest Kansans, he said.
“If they’re going to harvest our talent, we’ve got to figure out a way or a model together where they can have those employees here and not farm them out to (Los Angeles)” and other locations, he said.
The infrastructure put in place through the years in the region by telecommunications and cable companies could help in bringing technology industries to the region, he said.