When Dorothy was swept up by a tornado into the Land of Oz, all she could think about was how she was going to get back to Kansas, because, as she so famously said, ‘There’s no place like home.’ Nearly 120 years after L. Frank Baum penned those lines, that hometown feeling remains in Kansas’ Cherokee County while it moves forward, attracting business and industry.
Economic Development Director Janet Miller says she enjoys the small town atmosphere of Cherokee County. She has lived in Kansas “off and on all my life, so Kansas is home, and I’ve lived in Cherokee County for the past five years, and it has a real hometown feel. The people are caring; it’s in a central location; you can get to a lot of places relatively easily, and I just love the feeling of being here. You can’t beat it.” People, she adds, feel safe walking at night, and you see children walking home from school.
The county covers 591 square miles in the southeast corner of the state and shares borders on the south and east with Oklahoma and Missouri. The population of just over 20,000 is distributed over several cities and towns including the county seat of Columbus and its most populous center of Baxter Springs.
“I would tell business people considering expanding here, that yes, we are small, but we have easy access to a trained workforce and customers. We’re centrally located with access to Interstates 44 and 49, so we’re good in all directions,” Miller says. Within a thirty mile radius of the county, there is a population of over 250,000.
“We’re relatively close to a number of airports, and we have access to rail lines. We’ve been working to make sure we have the workforce businesses need, and our local governments are ready and willing to work with businesses to assist them. At the same time, we work very hard to make sure our existing businesses are happy and have their needs met. It’s a friendly place; I found it welcoming when I moved here five years ago. I know my neighbors by name, and they watch out for me and my family. Good things are happening, and we want to keep the momentum going. We’d love to show business-minded people what we have to offer, and we encourage more of them to join us.”
Kansas’ climate and soil are ideal for agriculture, making this a natural place for food processing, including pet food processing.
There are already companies working in the area of distribution “and we see it as a potential area for growth as Interstate 44 is just off our southeast corner, less than a quarter of a mile away and there are plans to connect that with a four-lane highway through the county. That’s not in place yet, but we feel the I-44 corridor provides opportunities for distribution for our central location.”
In addition to the Interstate and rail-lines, Cherokee County has quick access to the regional airport in Joplin, international airports in Kansas City and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Tulsa Port of Catoosa, an inland shipping port with access to the Arkansas River.
Manufacturers are thriving and include a range from metalworking and printing and packaging firms to companies producing parts for the aircraft industry. “We have a strong manufacturing base, and we want to build on that because we do have people with lots of experience working in that sector,” Miller said.
“We have a small section of the famed Route 66 going through the county, just thirteen miles of it, but those miles have a lot to see and do, and we get international travellers exploring it,” she said, regarding tourism.
“We also have a history of coal strip-mining in the northern part of the county, and that left areas to be reclaimed by nature. It’s now the Mined Land Wildlife Area, a state park spread across a couple of counties, and it has loads of opportunities for hunting – white-tailed deer, quail, duck, and turkey – and fishing, and all of that means there’s lots of openings for entrepreneurs and small businesses catering to tourists.”
The economic development office is interested in attracting variety in both the type and size of the industry. “We hope to have a balanced economic development approach,” she said, “so we’ve spent some time working on relocation projects, but we also want to make sure our existing businesses have what they need. We’ve also spent a fair amount of time in the past few years making sure we can support entrepreneurs because we realize that many of our larger businesses were started by entrepreneurs, and we want to encourage that too. We want a healthy mix because that makes the most sense for our community,” Miller explained.
“Most of our communities offer some sort of property tax abatement which varies city by city in the county and depends on the number of jobs created. Many offer property tax abatements for up to ten years on real property and equipment, and that can be a real asset, and we have some other programs that can be utilized for gap financing. And of course, we’re able to tap into the State of Kansas programs which are particularly helpful for manufacturers, distributors, or businesses involved in research and development.”
In addition to those incentives, the county has another ace up its sleeve, and that is its highly skilled and trained workforce.
Since 2016, Cherokee County has been an ACT® Certified Work Ready Community and was the first county in Kansas to attain the certification. As Miller explained, ACT was originally an abbreviation for the American College Test, but instead of testing the preparedness of students looking to enter post-secondary institutions, the Work Ready Communities initiative utilizes ACT’s WorkKeys assessments to ensure that test takers have the foundational skills necessary to be successful in the workplace. Participation in the Work Ready Communities initiative also provides data that allows communities to identify and work on closing skills gaps. And, it is superb for economic development organizations to demonstrate to business owners considering re-locating or launching a business, that there will be access to a skilled and work-ready workforce.
“To attain certification, we first had to get a core group of educators, employers, local governments, and economic developers to meet to develop strategies on how we would assess and strengthen our workforce. We also had specific goals from ACT in the number of individuals we needed to have earn the National Career Readiness Certificate in a variety of categories, so we had targets to hit in terms of numbers of students who earned the certificate, numbers of transitioning workers and numbers of current employees. We also needed a certain number of employers to sign up as supporters of the initiative. We had goals in all those areas, and we had a time period to attain them.”
According to Miller, the program is beneficial to a community’s economic development because it brings together policymakers, educators, businesses, and individuals, providing an understanding of the needs of each sector and a common language.
“It’s a great program for bringing all the pieces together. Our educators do a great job, but sometimes what they are doing is not what our employers need, and the two groups are not always speaking the same language. This program has given us a common language, and now our employers and educators have a way to talk to each other about their needs.”
Reflecting on her role in economic development, she said, “More than anything, for me, it has been about seeing greater connectivity between our educational institutions and our business community. It’s a small community, and yet, at times, everyone was working in their individual silos, and there wasn’t a great deal of communication. Now I’m seeing employers using the results of the WorkKeys assessments in their hiring process, and I see businesses looking for opportunities to utilize students, through internships and apprenticeships that, long-term, will be great for local industries.”