The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

December 19, 2012

Deal between city of Pittsburg, chamber draws criticism from mayor, businessman

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
astefanoni@joplinglobe.com

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Whether Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Blake Benson should assume responsibility for economic development for the city became a contentious issue at a special commission meeting Tuesday.

On Tuesday, the city commission considered a one-year agreement in which the chamber would take over economic development. The city, in turn, would pay the chamber $60,000.

“This is not a unique concept, this is something that Lawrence and Manhattan, and Joplin, (Mo.), and Overland Park and Hutchinson and other cities all do,” said City Manager Daron Hall.

Four commissioners voiced support for the agreement.

“Blake is a known entity ... He has been working hand-in-hand with this city for a number of years,” said Commissioner Marty Beezley. “I think it’s a great advantage to us that we have a known entity in our community who is respected not only in Pittsburg, but in the region and at the state level.”

Commissioner Rudy Draper said he was “extremely excited about the energy and attitude of Benson,” and added that he had “full faith” that Benson would do the job well.

But Mayor John Ketterman said he had had between 40 and 50 telephone calls from residents opposed to the arrangement. He said “there’s a lot of animosity toward the chamber in general in town,” and some residents, according to Ketterman, believed Benson might favor members of the chamber when pursuing economic development opportunities.

Benson said working with non-chamber members would not be an issue.

“As far as the issue of a conflict of interest, to be honest, that conflict would exist whether we were doing economic development or whether the city were, and a good example would be a grocery store,” Benson said. “If there were a grocery store looking to move into our community, yes our local grocery stores are members of the chamber, but at the same time, those grocery stores could also, if there was a city-funded economic development director, say we’re tax-paying businesses here and you’re using our taxpayer money to hire an economic development director to go out and recruit competition against us.

“The businesses we work with on a daily basis know that with economic development, a rising tide lifts all boats. I have been in the chamber field for 15 years. A little over half that was with chambers that also did economic development, and it has never been a concern as far as a chamber favoring members over non-members in terms of economic development.”

Hall noted that the Economic Development Advisory Committee still would be responsible for making recommendations regarding the use of the city’s Revolving Loan Fund.

Ketterman argued that the commission should postpone the decision until next month to allow for public input.

The commission ultimately approved the agreement by a vote of four to one, with Ketterman the lone dissenting vote. The agreement is effective immediately and will last until Dec. 31, 2013. It may be renewed each year or terminated at the discretion of the commission, as early as 30 days from its start date if the chamber is not fulfilling its obligation or is engaging in conduct detrimental to the city.

Benson must provide a monthly report to Hall and to the commission every other month.

Mark Turnbull, who had been Pittsburg’s Economic Development Director, retired earlier this month after working 18 years for the city.