Posted 12/01/15 (Tue)
A slowdown in the oil patch is raising questions about Divide County’s economic and community development direction. This is the second of two parts.
By Cecile Krimm
Divide County Community Developer KayCee Lindsey came to the Crosby City Council meeting earlier this month to tell aldermen about a new survey to be conducted in the area in conjunction with the Strom Center at Dickinson State University.
Alderman Doug Anderson reacted at the meeting, saying enough study has taken place. On the other hand, after he agrees with the notion it’s time to take a deeper look at where development is headed.
He uses the example of developer time spent picking out new street banners as something that’s not vitally urgent.
“What’s really important?” he asks. “Where do we want to be? As a council, maybe we need to redefine where we’re going.”
Like others involved in local development issues, he points to a soon-to-be-built daycare project to make a point -- that the city council has some “sensibilities” and is willing to stand behind a good project that is well-presented.
Part of the trouble, say Anderson and fellow alderman Wayne Benter, is no one has the time to oversee what Lindsey is working on. That said, both men agree it is up to the volunteers on local development boards to drive the agenda for Lindsey’s work.
“Right now, whether it would even be a full time position is even questionable,” said Benter, who is one of two city representatives on the Divide County Jobs Development Authority (JDA).
Benter admits his participation on the JDA board has been scant. Minutes show he hasn’t attended a meeting in over a year. He said last week the regular meeting time is not convenient for him.
Regardless of his amount of involvement, though, he is skeptical the city is getting its money’s worth and he said others have questioned him about the developer’s position.
“What she does all day, I have no idea,” he said.
At a time when people are leaving town and no one is sure if the oil patch will pick up again, “We’ve got to realize things will have to tighten up here,” he said.
City sales tax collections were down $13,000 last month, he said.
Others say, stay the course
Bryan Haugenoe, another alderman on the JDA board, remains committed to the process and the developer’s role.
“I think it’s still worth having,” he said. “I still think she’s doing what’s necessary.”
Haugenoe would like to see Lindsey work on attracting a small type of “mart” store, such as Shopko. He is also concerned about the retention of existing businesses and what to do about housing.
“Right now there’s all sorts of housing in Divide County. There’s all kinds of apartment units, houses, that are empty,” Haugenoe said, along with two trailer courts.
As the county road foreman, Haugenoe, is stretched thin. He tries to attend the meetings, but grows frustrated with the lack of progress on projects like Southridge Acres -- which remains mostly undeveloped.
“We’ve got to move forward,” he said.
Divide County Commissioner Doug Graupe has been engaged in development in the county longer than almost anyone -- about 25 years. He is an original member of the JDA, seeing it through it’s initial incarnation in Divide County, to a joint board with Burke County, and back to Divide alone.
“We’ve changed it from economic development to community development,” said Graupe -- a step city officials seem to have forgotten.
When hired, Lindsey’s position was to cover everything from working on retention and expansion of existing businesses to helping non-profit groups such as the fair and historical society, for more of a community focus, not just economic development.
That’s why Lindsey attends the meetings of at least nine boards a month and coordinates with many more. Having one person with knowledge of what all of the boards are doing, while also keeping abreast of best practices across the state, are just two of the roles Graupe sees as essential.
“We aren’t going to land the big industrial or commercial business that’s going to bring lots of jobs,” said Graupe, but the community developer has a hand in almost every quality of life project, business transition or issue of community importance.
“How do you measure it? There’s really no way to measure the position as far as accomplishments,” said Graupe, except through stats collected by the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Even then, information about particular clients is confidential unless public funds are involved.
Graupe rattles off a list of local business that have gained assistance over the years in the form of interest buydowns either from a county revolving loan fund or the city’s Spirit Fund.
While the idea of another meeting doesn’t excite him, he agrees it may be time to reassess the development direction.
“The feedback I’ve had is that people appreciate that she’s there,” Graupe said, but it’s up to the community as well as the people serving on the development boards to provide the direction.
SBDC Director Keith Olson, who held Divide’s developer position 15 years ago, said it’s tough to when you’re the only person in town focused on development full time and some of your bosses don’t come to meetings.
“You’ve got to have support. They’ve got to have your back,” he said. “You have to be at least semi-engaged, or don’t be on the board.”
With nearly 20 years of development experience under his belt, Olson said there are days he still isn’t sure what he should be doing, but “If your community is not engaged, it’s very difficult.”
It may be frustrating if there is a perception of no progress, but “If you want to see things really implode, don’t fund an economic development position.”