With the presence of several Great Bend Chamber of Commerce Board members Monday night and their pleas to reconsider its actions, the City Council tabled voting on a revamped economic development agreement with the chamber. The terms of this proposal are not being revealed by city officials.
Members of the chamber Board of Directors and other chamber members packed the council meeting room to support board Chairwoman AJ Chrest and Past Chair Taylor Calcara, who spoke on the chamber’s behalf. Their concern was that the revised pact remain a secret to the board and they felt surprised that the board was not informed of it.
However, the matter was not originally on the council’s agenda for Monday, and the agenda was amended to reflect the change. Word this was going to happen got out and Chrest rallied chamber supporters to attend.
“Ultimately, we all have the same goal,” Chrest said. The city and the chamber both want Great Bend to prosper.
“There is no witch hunt,” she said. “We are not pointing fingers.”
There have been many attempts at being included in the conversatiown prior to a public meeting, Chrest said. The City Council committee has denied the chamber Board the opportunity to be included.
“We just want to sit down at the table and be a part of the discussion,” Chrest said. “What this community needs is collaboration.”
In December, the city and the chamber approved a revamped contract for economic development services to, in part, improve communication with the chamber and require more accountability for eco devo efforts. The old contract was drafted in 1999 when the city first contracted with the chamber and had not been changed since.
On May 7, Mayor Joe Andrasek named himself and council members Jolene Biggs, Chad Somers, Cory Urban and Dana Dawson to an economic development committee. This committee was to meet with Andrasek, City Administrator Kendal Francis and the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Executive Board to discuss ideas and possibly restructuring eco devo efforts in Great Bend.
“Our concern is the process to get to this point,” Chrest said. The council committee met last Thursday, without chamber representatives, and arrived at the proposed changes, which have yet to be disclosed to the chamber, council members not on the committee and the public.
The council was asked how the chamber was supposed to be a part of the discussion if its members were not informed the discussions were taking place. They would not have known about Monday night had some chamber officials not been contacted earlier in the day.
“I respect where you are coming from,” Andrasek said.
“You’re being heard,” Councilman Dan Heath said.
But, just as there were many chamber supporters at the meeting, there have been many calls for change within the organization, Urban said. “People want something different.”
“Change is good,” Chrest said. “But, change for change’s sake is not progress. We just want to be the best partners we can be.”
There were members of the public there calling for more accountability from the chamber and those who supported it whole-heartedly.
The matter will be brought back again at the June 17 meeting, because since this is a budget issue, it must be settled before budget planning is in full swing. The council committee and the chamber board Executive Committee will meet at 5 p.m. Thursday at City Hall to go over the plan.
Technically, the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce is the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development; the latter part is funded through a contract with the City of Great Bend.
The arrangement allowed the chamber to administer the eco devo on the city’s behalf. This involves business recruitment and retention, and workforce development.
Economic development receives $153,000 this year through the general fund, with payments being made semi-annually. That is up from $135,000 in 2017 and 2018.
Chamber makes an annual funding request and it is up to the council to decide what will be budgeted. This year, the chamber also sought $50,000 to fund a study (which would have raised the total to $203,000), but that was not granted.
This involves business recruitment and retention, and workforce development and involves what amounts to about a third of the chamber’s annual budget.
The money for the chamber is funded via a city half-cent sales tax (generating 9 percent of the city’s revenue). The tax is split three ways among economic development, infrastructure improvements and property tax relief.
In all, the eco devo slice of this pie is anticipated to generate $370,000 in 2019, up from $350,000 in the last two years. This also funds a portion of Community Coordinator Christina Hayes’ department with the remaining balance transferred into an economic development fund.
But. the city needed to “shore up” the details and better clarify the city’s and the council’s expectations. The council also wanted more communication, accountability and transparency.
The contract outlined some concrete goals that could be set. Among these could be a business incentive program, a plan on how to use economic development funds (recruiting or retaining businesses are possibilities), following through on monthly reports, and documenting and listing empty buildings.
It goes beyond talking to prospects, and there needed to be a greater level of detail. However, there are aspects of business recruitment that have to remain confidential.
The contract automatically renewed on Jan. 1. So when the council gave Francis the green light in September, it allowed the city to give the chamber the requisite 90-day notice that it wanted changes.
Peters, who serves as president and chief executive officer of both the chamber and economic development, was also on board.