By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Whether Blake Benson, president of the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce, should assume responsibility for economic development for the city became a contentious matter at a special City Commission meeting Tuesday.
The commission considered, and eventually approved, 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,” said City Manager Daron Hall. “This is something that Lawrence and Manhattan and Joplin (Mo.) and Overland Park and Hutchinson and other cities all do.”
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.
Benson said the chamber is being reorganized to allow him to make economic development his primary focus. He said he would plan town hall meetings to update the public and make his work as transparent as possible.
But Mayor John Ketterman said he had received between 40 and 50 telephone calls from residents opposed to the arrangement. “There’s a lot of animosity toward the chamber in general in town,” he said. He said some residents believe that Benson might favor members of the chamber when pursuing economic development opportunities.
Benson said working with nonmembers of the chamber 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 nonmembers 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 said the commission should postpone the decision until next month to allow for public input.
The rest of the commissioners and Hall disagreed, noting that personnel decisions are not made with public input.
Pittsburg businessman Dave Holloman, who spoke during the meeting, said he represented “30 or 40” Pittsburg residents adamantly opposed to the chamber being responsible for the city’s economic development. He, too, requested that the commission postpone the decision.
“It has nothing to do with Blake personally,” said Holloman, who last year opened Sapience Corp. “We need jobs. It’s the single most important issue for this community and for you guys to consider. It really needs more focus, more attention than you’re giving it.”
He suggested that the commission look into contracting with companies that specialize in economic development.
Under state law, municipalities must put the purchase of products out for bids, but not services.
Holloman said the public perception is that Benson wouldn’t be held to any performance standards because he is a known entity, and that the “good old boy network” was at play. He said the arrangement was a ploy to save money.
Commissioner Michael Gray said none of the statements was true. He advocated making the arrangement with the chamber as transparent as possible for the duration of the contract, including involving numerous groups in goal setting and performance evaluation.
“I take a little bit of offense that you would imply that us as commissioners wouldn’t be looking out for the best interests of the city,” Gray said.
Commissioner Patrick O’Bryan said saving money on the position “never once came up” in the three months that city personnel and commissioners had discussed the idea in closed sessions.
“We talked about going this direction because this is a program that has worked successfully for other places,” he said.
The commission ultimately approved the agreement by a vote of 4-1, 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 commission determines that the chamber is not fulfilling its obligation or is engaging in conduct detrimental to the city.
Benson must provide reports to Hall monthly 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.