Local officials were hopeful Friday afternoon that state officials’ enthusiasm for what they saw in Ellis County will travel back to Topeka.

Led by freshman Rep. Barbara Wasinger, R-Hays, and Rep. Ken Rahjes, R-Agra, city, county and business leaders took Secretary of Commerce David Toland, Deputy Secretary of Transportation Lindsay Douglas and U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., on a two-hour tour of what the county is calling the Northwest Business Corridor — 2 miles of 230th Avenue north from the U.S Highway 183 Bypass and Interstate 70 and then 2 miles east on Feedlot Road to Highway 183 — and the city’s proposed north Vine Street corridor improvements.

Together, the projects would cost more than $20 million, but the Northwest Corridor improvements could help keep one of the county’s largest employers here and attract new business, officials said.

The tour included stops at Midwest Energy's Goodman Energy Center and oilfiled supplier Hess Services, where managers told the group how their narrow, hilly county road causes difficulties for their large trucks and even delivery vehicles from UPS and FedEx. 

For Toland, former CEO of Thrive Allen County, this was his first industrial tour since taking helm of the state’s Department of Commerce.

“I wanted to come to western Kansas to send a message about how the Department of Commerce is committed to the entire state, that we are helping successful cities like Hays and Ellis County continue with their growth, but also that we’re focused on helping communities that maybe are struggling more as well,” he said during a stop to tour Hess Services, one of the county’s largest employers.

“I’m so pleased to see the level of cooperation between units of local government here and the desire to support successful businesses like Hess that are feeling significant growth pains related to both infrastructure and labor availability,” he said.

“Being able to tell our story to the group gathered today is the first step toward our success. It’s all about collaboration,” Hays City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs said in a statement provided to The Hays Daily News.

“The next step is to not let the excitement die,” Wasinger said after the tour. “We brought all the stakeholders in. We’ve got to continue fighting to get things done that we know need to be done and are essential.”

Collaboration could be key in obtaining state funding for the projects, Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, said after the tour. He said he spoke with Secretary of Transportation Julie Lorenz last week.

“She was very interested in knowing whether or not the county or the city would participate in whatever kind of project we had,” Billinger said.

Billinger serves on the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Joint Task Force and said collaborative projects in Johnson County received much attention.

“We talked about how the kind of projects in communities were manageable when you had participation between the counties and the cities and the state,” he said.

For Douglas, the visit reinforced the importance of restoring money to KDOT, she said.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s proposed budget would phase out what became called “the bank of KDOT” — transfers of funds from KDOT to other state agencies during Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration.

The 2020 budget would reduce transfers by $160 million, allowing the state to restart its T-WORKS highway improvement program. Unfinished projects include modernizing a portion of U.S. Highway 281 in Russell County.

A portion of that $160 million could be used for projects like the Northwest Corridor, Douglas said.

“I’m really looking at how we can tool that for business retention for projects just like the one we were talking about today, where you can get local match, you can contribute federal funds if we’re able to secure a grant like that. Then KDOT would actually have funding it could bring to the table for specific challenges just like this,” she said.

“Right now, without the governor’s budget getting through, we just don’t have the funding flexibility to have the kind of money that we need to be able to do these kinds of things,” she said.

Wasinger, a former city and county commissioner who now represents the 111th District of Hays and part of Ellis County, said the improvements are important to keep Hess in the county.

“Having driven that road, I know exactly how important this is to the region, and knowing that Hess Services has been courted by Missouri, it’s frightening to think that we would lose such a wonderful employer and entrepreneur from our area,” she said.

While Mark Hess, vice president of operations for Hess Services, didn’t confirm any talks specifically with Missouri, he said the company has looked at Kansas City, Salina and Texas.

The company on Feb. 2 purchased a $2 million facility in Watford City, N.D.

“We will be looking at expanding up in that area in the very near future,” he said.

He said road access is only one aspect of possible expansion in Hays, where Hess’ brother, Dan, started 30 years ago in a one-car garage on Ninth Street.

The company pays 11.6 cents per kilowatt hour for power at its location on 230th Avenue, which consists of eight buildings, he said. In North Dakota, the rate 4.6 cents.

“So it’s over 60 percent more expensive here than in North Dakota. We’ve asked about getting some different options on rates for industrial use and have been met with resistance. Midwest (Energy) has told us that the state sets the rates and that’s that,” he said.

The housing situation in Hays is also a factor. During the tour at an 800,000-square-foot shop where workers were building 1,000 barrel oil tanks, Hess told Toland that just this week he’d offered a job to a recent robotics graduate that, with benefits, would pay about $23 an hour. The candidate turned down the job, citing a lack of affordable housing.

“I don’t see a lot of additional community efforts on trying to work with more builders, get more builders come in in the city of Hays,” he said.

All those factors have created frustrations in considering if the company continues to expand in Ellis County.

“I would like to, but you know, there’s a difference of reality and wishful thinking,” Hess said. “We have tried and tried for four to five years to get more attention and focus from the state to get roads out here. This road’s been literally promised 10 years ago. They told us if we had 100 jobs up here, they’d have this road without a problem,” he said.

Hess said he’s clinging to the optimism he’s had for the last decade.

“For the last six years, with the budget shortfalls in Kansas, everybody just said, ‘Hey we don’t have any money, we can’t put in a road.’ So hopefully that’s been addressed within the budget and we can get some emphasis on getting some infrastructure to support business out here, because if not, it’s a business decision. You’ve got to look at your other options,” he said.

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