By Lydia Kautz
Junction City Union
Recently, members of the public have begun asking questions about the role of Economic Development Director Mickey Fornaro-Dean and what she does in her job.
In order to answer these questions, the Union sat down with Fornaro-Dean to discuss what her job entails.
More than anything, Fornaro-Dean stressed the EDC’s accomplishments since she arrived in Junction City. In her time, 14 projects have been completed, 126 local jobs have been created or retained, 33 projects have been initiated, and 15 site visits have been conducted. This comes to about $66 million worth of investments in the community.
“That's a pretty substantial,” Fornaro-Dean said. “That $66 million equates to $22 million a year over the last three years I've been here but it kind of cumulated in the last year, year and a half. So this actually represents more like a year and a half timeframe on the investment piece.”
Projects completed could mean a variety of things, Fornaro-Dean said. “…It can be anything from ‘nothing was here to start and ground up’ or it could be something existing an existing company that's here and we help them expand or grow or find more space apply.”
This can mean anywhere from a small to a large investment.
“it could be anything from as small as a local business calling us and saying ‘we need more space, or we only have 1000 square feet, and we need 2500,’” she said.
One of the projects Fornaro-Dean took part in bringing Camso and Billy Simms into the community, among other things.
“It is an extremely competitive market, economic development’s very competitive across the board,” she said. “Whether it's for retail, if that's your community's focus, or whether it's for industry. I like to see that we have a mix. But I also know that I want to build those jobs that have in this is not to be a higher level of pay, because that creates more opportunities as well.”
Economic development is not the place to look for instant gratification, Fornaro-Dean said, because successful companies don’t make decisions in a snap.
“Economic development is a long term game,” she said. “It's not a short term solution. You have to build those relationships and work through it. And you need to have the partnerships to be able to do that.”
It’s often difficult, she said, to discuss economic development, because the business is secretive by it’s very nature. Fornaro-Dean said businesses are often leery of any kind of information getting out, because it lets their competitors know what they’re up to, which can in turn cause problems. Concerns include the possibility of sites being swept out from under them by other companies with similar products and similar needs.
For her own part, Fornaro-Dean said she routinely attends conferences meant to help recruit businesses to the area, including AUSA, the Site Selectors’ Guild, FABTECH, Select USA, and more. Fornaro-Dean has kept in contact with the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and taken part in planning sessions for a statewide economic development plan.
At AUSA in particular, Fornaro-Dean said local officials met face to face with more than 100 national and international companies. The EDC held a special reception for prospective businesses which 15 companies attended and met with representatives from the Junction City community. Alongside the MAC, she said, EDC officials met with a federal contingent.
This year, she received her master’s degree in Economic Development Leadership through a partnership between the University of Alabama, the University of Southern Mississippi, Texas Christian University, and Clemson University.
Fornaro-Dean said she and MAC Director Craig Bender spoke in Clarksville, Tennessee to a group of people in their respective fields about economic development and military affairs.
The EDC worked with 13 local companies to develop a technical education plan to address workforce development needs. The EDC partnered with the county and Flint Hills Regional Council to become certified on brownfield sites.
The Chamber hosted three legislative coffees for the community in the past year and hosted a local business expo.
She said the EDC and the Military Affairs Council had presented a progress report to the county and city commissions in June.
The progress report included information about a COVID-19 specific page on the EDC website as well as keeping interested parties updated via email and social media on the COVID-19 situation.
She said she and other Chamber and EDC officials had been “in constant contact” with authorities in Topeka and Washington, D.C. as the COVID-19 situation has unfolded. The pandemic has had an impact on the local business community, especially among small businesses. Fornaro-Dean said she and her employees have kept local business owners informed about resources on the state and national level to help them remain afloat during this time.
Accomplishments, she said, included a punch card for local restaurants, a small business scavenger hunt, and PowerUpJC, a promotion for local businesses that sold out in a matter of minutes. PowerUpJC, Fornaro-Dean said, brought more than $40,000 to the local economy.
Even during the pandemic, Fornaro-Dean said she has kept in contact with active prospects for new businesses that want to enter the community.
During her time here, they have built a new website, become a gold certified work ready community, and started a revolving loan fund for local companies, she said.
Fornaro-Dean said her hopes for the future were strong.
“I still feel that this community and its opportunities, and even with the unique circumstances we are in, are still very positive,” she said.
Past President of the Chamber Board Mark Powers reaffirmed much of what Fornaro-Dean said about the secrecy and competitiveness of the business.
Powers has served on the EDC, starting in the 1980s and 1990s into present day, he said, in addition to being a local business owner.
“Every town and every state is trying to grow their community, and so it is the most competitive business out there,” he said.
The slightest thing can cause a business to choose one site over another, he said.
Powers recalled Junction City losing a prospective business to Manhattan at the last minute to an offer of K-State football tickets.
“That’s how crazy it can get,” he said. “It is a very secretive business. Most businesses don’t want anything announced until everything is signed.”