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Larned Council skeptical about Chamber outlook
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LARNED — Monday night, the Larned City Council listened patiently to a presentation of the combined Larned Area Chamber of Commerce and Pawnee County Economic Development Council board report, later grilling presenters with tough questions concerning the organizations’ projected draw-down of reserves over the next two years. 

Alex Filbert is the director of the Larned Area Chamber of Commerce and Zach Hampton is the president of the Pawnee County Economic Development Council. Together, they presented an annual report, outlining what the groups have accomplished in the past year and what their plans, goals and priorities are for the coming year. 

Last year, the two organizations opted to combine their boards, though they are still two separate organizations, Filbert explained in a telephone conversation with the Great Bend Tribune Tuesday morning. 

Restructuring and rebuilding was the theme of the report Monday night. While it is uncertain if the two organizations can combine legally, they have found it conducive to the goals of both to work together to identify long-standing programs, promotions and community events that have grown stale, and breath new life into them. 

The goal, Filbert said, is to increase business and community participation, and build awareness of what Larned has to offer. The changes are far-reaching, from increasing promotion and participation in Chamber Coffee and Business After Hours offerings, to a revamp of Santa Fe Trail Days, an annual community celebration that has been around for many years. 

Last year, the Larned Area Chamber of Commerce also restructured membership, Filbert said. Another goal of the organization for the coming year is to provide more opportunities to build awareness in the community about member businesses and to provide more educational opportunities for businesses and their employees to help them make day to day operations more efficient, or provide a spark for innovation. 

Filbert also reported some successes concerning the community’s involvement as a Network Kansas eCommunity. Through that program, they’ve partnered with Stafford County Economic Development and hosted a regional youth entrepreneurship contest. 

“The contest was open to middle and high school students who came up with business plans they created and competed against each other,” Filbert said. “Seventy-five percent of the participants were from Pawnee County, either Larned or Pawnee Heights. It was cool and exciting to see their ideas.” 

Currently, she added, the combined Larned and Pawnee County group is in its third week of an entrepreneurial mindset workshop. Thirteen participants from Pawnee County and the surrounding counties of Barton, Rush and Stafford are taking part. 

“All of these efforts are increasing the positive mindset of the community,” Filbert said. 

She summed up the combined report, adding that it was their hope that the City of Larned would consider maintaining their current funding level of $26,500 for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.  

Council skeptical

While Filbert and Hampton’s enthusiasm was high during their presentation Monday night, council members and Mayor William Nusser were skeptical. Council member Kim Barnes, Ward 4, asked if the $72,000 indicated as reserves in the financial statement was what they hoped to fund their two-year projected negative balance with. 

“Yes,” Filbert replied. “Investing in the community costs money. We are working with coming up with new fundraisers to offset costs.”

Barnes, frustrated, said it had been his understanding that the Chamber and PCEDC would be contributing to the cost of producing marketing videos about the community, but it appeared now that they did not have the money to do so. 

Nusser weighed in. He noted that when he was on the board of directors for the Chamber, there had been money in reserve, and the programs and events the group held made money. But according to the financial statement, that was no longer the case. 

“I’m worried if you cannot make money on the events, you’re going to run out of money,” he said. “I’m concerned that in the next five years, the Chamber may be coming to the city saying if the Chamber is to stay, it’s going to need to be fully funded. If I was in your position, I’d be extremely concerned.”

He warned that should that happen, he didn’t foresee the city being in a position to provide more money. Filbert maintained she was confident that the finances of the two organizations would begin to build again within that time frame. 

Jason Murray, Ward 3, inquired what the group is doing to fill open buildings. He alluded to the Shopko building that was recently vacated. 

While Filbert admitted she is not an expert in economic development, she has been consulting with Network Kansas and learned they can help to put together a full community profile that includes what the community is lacking, and from that they could target businesses to fill the gaps. Another tool she is checking out is the Location One site selector database, where companies from outside the area can learn what buildings are available throughout their target area. 

In addition to looking outside the community, the Chamber and PCEDC are also concentrating on homegrown businesses. Filbert talked about these efforts with the Tribune Tuesday morning. 

The community has been an eCommunity with Network Kansas for about five or six years now. This past year, they have identified and extended an eCommunity loan to a local business, allowing it to stay in the community and stay open, she said. 

Encouraging entrepreneurs to reach out to Larned’s homegrown business incubator, Hillside Envision, is one more hopeful avenue, Filbert said. So far, the group has encouraged one local photographer, Kelci Hall with Lily Pad Photography, to take the next step with her business. Her ribbon cutting happened March 25 at Hillside Envision.  “We really are in the restructuring phase and rebuilding phase,” Filbert said. “It will take time, but we are encouraged about what the future brings. We have a great group on the board, and great leadership throughout the community.”