Last Friday, Kansas Secretary of Commerce, David Toland, visited Junction City after an invitation from Geary County Economic Development Directory Mickey Fornaro-Dean and Junction City Area Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Council Director Craig Bender.
“He’s a brand new secretary, came in with this administration, and we felt it important to get the chance to visit with him (and) showcase our community,” Fornaro-Dean said. “So, we extended an invitation. And of course, he’s a very busy person. I think he wants to see all his communities regardless. I think he’s interested in getting out into the communities across Kansas to get a better feel for the rest of Kansas because we are a pretty large, diverse state.”
While here, Toland toured UPU Industries, an Ireland headquarters company that has it’s only U.S. location in Junction City, and New Horizons, a “local, homegrown company” she said.
“Kind of got the best of both worlds,” she said. “An FDI company — foreign direct investment — that came to our community, and continues to invest here. Then a homegrown industry that’s being very successful.”
After his tour, Toland met with several community and military members to introduce himself, layout some plans he and Kansas Governor Laura Kelly are working on to enhance economic growth in the state and to hear from people on the ground about what impacts them.
“I’m 13 months in as secretary,” Toland said. “So, I was brought in with Governor Kelly to try and rebuild the state’s economic development capacity. So, the Department of Commerce is an agency that once upon a time, was really a leader in state level economic development. We were aggressive, we had a presence in markets around the country and around the world. And, we had good partnerships with local communities (and) local businesses around the state.
“What we’re trying to do is get back to that place, not just turn back the clock but make sure that we’re reconstituted in a way that reflects the current environment, the current market in our state and even globally,” he added. “So, what that means in practical terms is first that we need to have a plan for economic development in the state.”
Toland said the last statewide economic plan was developed in 1986, the Redwood-Krider Report, and times have changed since then — especially job growth and wage growth in the state. Toland said in a 10 year period, 2008-18, the state fell in national ranking in both categories and the Kansas Department of Commerce is looking at ways to turn those number around so Kansas can have positive economic growth again.
“One of the key challenges we have in the state right now is there 56,000 vacant jobs in Kansas,” he said. “And so, we’re trying to look at ways that we can get more workers on to the bench in our state. Some of that is about certifications. Particularly, I think, that’s an issue that’s particularly relevant here in Junction City.
“If you got military family that has been transferred in, and you have a spouse who may have a professional license in another state, we need to make it easier for them to go work in Kansas,” he added. “We hope that for those military men and women who are separating when they’re separated, if they’ve already put some roots down in terms of employment, and the like in Kansas — we think there’s better chance that they’ll stay in Kansas.”
Col. Stephen Shrader, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Riley commander, was on hand for the meeting and he spoke of a program that trains and places soldiers who are getting out of the military in civilian jobs. Shrader also praised Junction City for the commitment to the soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley, mentioning the welcome home event held for the soldiers returning home from a rotation in Europe last year.
Toland talked about rebuilding old connections the state had as far as recruiting businesses and industries to Kansas. There were at one time recruiters for Kansas on the east coast, west coast and Missouri looking for future investments in the state. Now, there is only one recruiter for the entire nation — something he hopes to change in the future.
Overall, the short visit and hour-long question-and answer session was a success, Fornaro-Dean said.
“I would say as the first visit I thought it was extremely positive and I was very encouraged,” she said. “I think he is very engaged. Craig and I will sit down and think of what our next steps. But I think it was the first step to what I would hope would be very positive and and developing relationship that hopefully will bring more value and more opportunities to Junction City (and) Geary County.”