Emporia City Commissioners gave tentative support toward a one-year funding commitment for Ignite Emporia during a Tuesday morning study session.
Ignite Emporia is a five-year strategic plan that is being designed to grow and retain jobs, expand businesses and industries and bring in more affordable housing. The initiative is a project of the Emporia Area Chamber of Commerce, which has been working in partnership with local schools, businesses, manufacturers and more.
Commissioners were asked to consider contributing $150,000 over five years in July, but no action was taken. Chamber President Jeanine McKenna along with Vektek President Troy Estes and Lyon County State Bank Senior Vice President Russ Bonitatibus asked commissioners to reconsider supporting the project during Wednesday’s meeting.
“We are currently at 74 contributors and we’ve raised $1.1 million of our $1.6 million goal,” McKenna said, adding that contributors range from some of the area’s largest employers to the smallest, family-owned stores. “We are going into the implementation stage of this and we’re not letting dust settle.”
McKenna said a private investor has funded a seven-month housing study that will begin next month and is expected to be completed in June. The study will be conducted by RDG Planning & Design, and will help bring in updated information about the city’s current needs and future needs for growth.
Estes said he and others at Vektek were excited about Ignite Emporia and hoped to see the city jump on board with support.
Lyon County Commissioners have already pledged $150,000 toward the project.
“Vektek was excited about this because we need to push Emporia forward, and we’re always looking at a way to bring the community together,” he said. “To actually have somebody who actually has representatives from a number of sectors is [big]. ... Emporia has a lot to offer, but we’re kind of silent sometimes. The people — once we get them here — they seem to like it. I think it’s just a very unique opportunity to be working with the city, the business leaders.”
Bonitatibus said he believed a project like Ignite Emporia was needed to keep Emporia growing.
“The things that we heard [as a need] were workforce development, housing, the sense of the community working together; that’s really what we’re looking at and what we’re trying to address in this area,” he said. “I think it’s very important that the city be a partner of that, not just with support, but financially. To me, I think that’s very key. That is looked at by a lot of people in the community.”
Commissioner Danny Giefer had questions about why the project — which initially was touted as being 100-percent privately funded — had started asking for public funds. McKenna said investors indicated that the project would have more legitimacy and they would feel more secure with city and county involvement.
Commissioner Becky Smith also had questions about the project, and expressed concern over using general funds to cover someone’s salary or paperwork for the group.
“When the Ignite Emporia group came to us in the first place, they were talking about just private monies, and then they have realized that the city and the county needed a little buy-in,” she said. “They came to us with minor amounts in the whole overall budget, and I know the commissioners have questions on how this money would be spent and where exactly this would come from. We do want to support it, but we are very wary with our tax dollar monies and where we want it to actually spend.”
Smith said the Regional Development Association and economic development budgets had more “wiggle room” in the coming year. She would be more comfortable, she said, pulling money from there to support a one-time payment to Ignite Emporia and then reconsidering future support.
“We want to make sure we get the results we’ve been asking for so we are prudent with everyone’s tax dollars,” she said.
Mayor Jon Geitz said he would support a $30,000 payment to the group and then revisit the agreement to see what progress had been made. He said the support for Ignite Emporia within the community shows that it is a viable project.
“One of the things I’m most proud of from my five years on the commission is that Emporia City Commission has been very supportive of economic development,” he said. “I believe we need to have an all-hands-on-deck economic development model.”
Over the years, the city has helped with higher education, private enterprise, entrepreneurship and more. This would be a way to bring all of those elements together, he said.
“This definitely fits in with what the five of us thought was important over the last two years, and even longer than that,” Geitz said. “I think it’s important that the city is involved in and, hopefully, we see some real results.”
Geitz said he was also interested in seeing the results of the housing study, which could help the city with future infill development projects and spur more private development.
Commissioners also received a recommendation from the Emporia Friends of the Zoo Board of Directors to approve the low bid from Mitchell-Markowitz Construction for work on the zoo’s entry and waterfowl pond. The total bid comes in just under $860,000, but board members have pledged to find ways to cut costs where they can.
The vacation of two county road segments located near the Emporia Municipal Airport was also up for discussion. Sections of Road K and Road 120 are being recommended for vacation due to the city’s purchase of additional property surrounding the airport.
Public Works Director Dean Grant then discussed upcoming waterline improvements on 12th Avenue from Grand to Lincoln streets, and recommended combining the section to extend to Constitution Street, which is also on deck for improvements in the coming year.
The city also reviewed updates to its water conservation plan. City Attorney Christina Montgomery said there were no major changes and the city had already implemented most of the plan.
The city will meet for an action session at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 4 at the Municipal Courtroom.