“We’re excited to be at this point with Eric joining us as the new Executive Director for Prowers Economic Prosperity, (PEP)”, stated Rick Robbins, President of the county economic development organization, during the Tuesday, March 7th board meeting.
Eric Depperschmidt, who hails from Ness and Finney Counties in Kansas, was the last applicant for the executive director position which was opened at the beginning of the year by PEP, following its reorganization efforts under the guidance of Progressive Urban Management Associates. Depperschmidt was attending his first monthly PEP meeting which also served as an informal, ‘meet and greet’ for board members.
Robbins said Depperschmidt’s career dovetailed with the criteria PEP was searching for in an executive director. Someone with experience in economic development and had a working familiarity with rural communities were key requirements. The new executive director provided some of his personal and professional background for board members, “I grew up on a small farming operation in western Kansas and had eight years of economic development experience in the Ness and Finney Counties area. I became interested in economic development while working for now Congressman Jerry Moran as his Ag-liaison. I started working on rural development projects in western Kansas, including infrastructure issues and rural development which is where I got my entry into economic development. I started the Ness County economic development program from the ground up and went to the Finney County program which parallels yours in Prowers County in many respects. After several years I went into banking and saw the other side of recruiting businesses and local business expansion and retention. My heart and passion really lies in economic development, and I read your advertisement for an economic development director and it seemed to be a match. Our two areas are very similar in needs and these plans will give us a good map to move forward and I feel we’ll have some great successes here.”
Robbins moved on to the roundtable discussions which are initiated and hosted by PEP board members and cover key economic development areas for the county including the retail sector, various aspects of farming and ranching, manufacturing/distribution, recreation, tourism and housing issues. Monthly, hour long meetings are held to gain insight into what each of these areas need in order to grow their economies and the means by which PEP can aid them. Robbins said their guest for the manufacturing round table, Linda Clark, a local businessperson in Lamar for over 20 years, described her Play Clay operation and most recently the growth of her Simply Fit Board company which now enjoys a national buying base. He said he was amazed to learn of her struggles through what was available to help get her started and those areas she needed that did not exist. “We need to have these in place for when that entrepreneurial person steps up to start a business; we can have those readily available for them. We need to make sure we can remove those hurdles to business development.” Other businesses that came to the meeting included C.F. Maier and Pelsue. “All of them were excited we were doing this. They were glad PEP was holding these meetings and providing a means by which Prowers County businesses can help support each other. I think that’s one of the biggest disconnects that Prowers County has is we’re so busy doing our individual jobs that we don’t sit down as a group and discuss our common or unique issues.”
Angie Cue related some details of the recent retail roundtable meeting. “We focused on the automotive business sectors in the county including automotive parts and sales,” she explained. She said there were common challenges such as, “First and foremost, finding qualified employees which is a general concern for all our industries.” She added that technology and the internet were also key issues as well as keeping up with advancements in the automotive industry and internet shopping versus local sales. The difficulty in opening a local business was also voiced by attendees. “Another challenge was the change in the local financial landscape. Down-payments are not as valuable as they once were when it comes to purchasing a car and banks are not honoring long-term customers like they used to.” Other challenges are government regulations as well as tools and training programs which are under-used in the community. “We want to try to integrate working employees with the training opportunities which are available,” she explained. Cue said the suggestions that came out of the meeting were more dealings with high school students, the HOPE Center and the college, to try to get our work forces in line with all of those and give some exposure to the kids so they could increase their interest in what jobs and classes we offer locally.
Board member, Lawrence Brase, stated that he has heard of situations where employers are faced with potential workers who are not open to work that ranges beyond eight to five or requires weekends or evenings. He asked, “What are we doing with our people, how do we overcome this mindset. A job is a job where you need to work and advance so you can go on to work your preferred hours. It sets you back when you find people who don’t want to work other than their own requirements.” A suggestion was made to contact the local State Work Force Center which is now holding quarterly job fairs in Lamar. The past two have been well-attended with from 85 to 90 applicants who meet with four or five business representatives that are seeking future employees. Robbins said it would make sense to contact the Center to see how the two organizations could aid each other.
The next PEP meeting is set for March 21st, and will be attended by representatives from various state economic development organizations and lending agencies. The general session PEP board meetings are held the first Tuesday of each month at the Rodeway Cow Palace Inn at Noon.
By Russ Baldwin
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