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Danville officials discuss workforce, economic development

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of stories highlighting discussions during a recent Danville City Commission/management team retreat where staff met to outline goals and objectives for the coming year.

Developing and maintaining workforce development was a big topic during last week’s city management staff retreat. In terms of funding local initiatives, Mayor Mike Perros likened it to an age-old question.

“It’s a little bit of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. I think we’re going to have to take a long look at that equation,” Perros said. “We’ve got Jody (Lassiter, Economic Development Partnership president) out traveling … but have we got the workforce for him to sell?”

He said he can’t imagine a worse scenario than getting a business to come to town, “and then they’re not able to staff what they’re trying to do. We have to accomplish step one.”

How to quantify it

His comments followed the group’s discussion about funding Bluegrass Community & Technical College. City Manager Ron Scott said there is a great opportunity for expansion at the school, but wondered if it was the wisest investment of funds for the city.

“At the risk of being the Grinch here before Christmas, on allocations of large amounts of money to BCTC — it’s a great asset to the community,” Scott said. However, current city policy requires “before we allocate the money, to show some payback on that investment on behalf of our taxpayers.”

Scott said in his point of view, education is a state or private function.

The challenge in allocating resources is “determining what payback we will get, and how to quantify it,” Scott said, in an era where the city has been less supportive for other community agency requests, which have been scaled back because the city “didn’t necessarily  see the benefit of return.”

Perros said he doesn’t think you can quantify it.

“I do know this — our neighbors to the west, Marion and Washington counties, they contribute $200,000 to workforce development per year. That’s the raw, basic ingredient,” Perros said. “ … I would like to know what others are doing across the state, in places where they are successful …”

Scott reminded that, to date, both the city and county have contributed $50,000 to the leadership of EDP, “and another $10,000 for that particular workforce development. All I’m saying is that it’s a significant amount of money, and is there any way of quantifying or improving the fact that the beneficiaries of that system will actually work and produce taxes in the City of Danville. Because we’re talking about — at $100,000 — a $5 million payroll necessary to generate that. So it’s not an inconsequential amount.” 

Scott said another pressing issue intertwines with workforce developments the city may want to consider taking on more aggressively: the drug epidemic. He said that in some of his local discussions, he’s heard some companies may have 100 applicants for a job, “Then, after drug testing, they might have 10 left. Workforce, while primary, may be secondary to dealing with the drug and opioid epidemic. The question becomes what should and could the city do to help in that overall problem … that we’re not currently doing.”

City Commissioner Denise Terry said, “If we’re not in the high schools, or even the middle schools, recruiting that there are other options out there besides a four-year college, we’re not going to have a workforce development.”

Terry said instead of “just throwing money out there, we have to look at where it needs to go.” Encouraging youth to undergo some type of vocational training simultaneously during high school could result in having an 18-year-old “come out of high school making $40, $50, or $60K …” Terry said, which is part of the disconnect. She doesn’t think the focus is on “catching kids at the right ages, and keeping them here.”

Perros said having a conversation with local school systems that have elected not to “become a part of the vocational effort” would be a good place to start.

Economic development

The group mutually agreed it had a good representation on the EDP Board with the mayor and two commissioners taking up seats. However, as always, Scott said, the city is pressed every budget cycle to deal with “a shortage of funds, and pressed to figure out what goes where.”

“We recently reaffirmed our partnership with the Heart of Danville, and it does call for continued planning and action to do that,” Scott said. He said this agreement shouldn’t be looked at as just a procedural move, but as an affirmation of ongoing work needed, and the need to work cooperatively.

“Do we need to go to Nick (Wade, director of the Heart) and say you need to take this initiative and develop a business plan and come back to us?” Mayor Perros asked.

Scott said that could be a part of it. “The effort to work more closely together from that nonprofit and the city could exist, and be better.” He said the city and the Heart have several common issues at heart, such as creating a TIF (taxing increment finance) district and better parking in downtown, for example.

Perros said while there are many incentives available for large businesses to relocate to Danville, he “would like us to really, really look at those for small businesses, too. How do we really make it so that we can be attractive to others in communities to bring your businesses here?”

“Isn’t that part of the EDP?” Commissioner Rick Serres asked.

“That is an area that needs to be addressed, incentive and manpower. It’s just one example,” Perros said.

“I think we’re doing our part with the quality of life (in Danville). Do we look at smaller tax incentives to get the ball rolling? I think we’ve all talked to businesses that want to relocate, but can’t due to upstart costs,” Serres said. “Or they can’t afford to live here, not because of the city, but because of the price of renting properties.”

Commissioner J.H. Atkins said, “As a city, we need to make it known to the public we’re still very supportive of the EDP’s efforts …” He said the city should also make sure it communicates expected “performance goals.”

Perros said in a recent conversation during an EDP committee meeting, they “already narrowed down the seven areas of focus this community needs to address in economic development areas.” He said Lassiter “needs to take that list and come back with a business plan, based on those seven areas. None of us have that expertise in that arena, why even try … We’re going to these events, we’re paying this kind of money, give us a report on who you talk to … “

“It’s really EDP’s job to give it to us, not Jody’s job,” Atkins said.

Ben Nelson, chair of the EDP, said he could speak to that. He said the committee Perros co-chairs is made up of citizens who help “shepherd what are the targeted industries we, as a community, want to pursue.”

Nelson said, “Targets will move, and what this community longs for will change,” and that Perros and co-chair Marty Gibson are still trying to get that committee “off the ground.”

“This community cannot sit and wait for the phone to ring. We have to get aggressively out and recruit, and we have to direct our staff on what those targets are and hold their feet to the fire to go out and do that,” Nelson said. “It’s all work in progress.”

Other initiatives discussed included:

• Wired/wireless communications — Connectivity goals were touched on, such as deployment of free web access to Millenium Park and downtown/Main Street; upgrading security cameras at Weisiger Park and Bunny Davis Center, and possibly other newly renovated city parks.

• City communications — A continuation of updating/improving the city’s website were discussed, as well as how to “best package” and communicate benefits to attract/maintain workforce.

• Workforce — Human Resources Director Donna Peek said, “Recruiting is hard, everyone is struggling to find workers.” She said the city gets a lot of responses about job postings on social media, and the job posting page on Danville’s website is its most hit page.