December 15, 2009

ICED to focus on jobs in 2010

By Adrianne DeWeese -
Expect every business-related sentence from the Independence Council for Economic Development president’s mouth in the following year to contain one crucial word.


“You probably won’t hear anything else come out of my mouth that doesn’t have the word ‘jobs,’” said Tom Lesnak, the ICED president since January 2007, during the organization’s annual report to the Independence City Council Monday night. With public- and private-sector investors, the ICED provides resources to local businesses at no cost, including databases, business retention visits, information on available grants and others.

Based on multiple surveys with Independence businesses in 2009, Lesnak said local professionals believe the worst of the economic recession – which some believe is the heaviest since the Great Depression in the 1930s – is over. According to a recent ICED-led survey with Independence employers, about 84 percent of those surveyed have no plans for layoffs or downsizing in the next six months.

In a separate question, 32 percent of employers replied they plan to hire new employees or fill vacant positions in the next six months. That number, Lesnak said, was half that amount six months ago.

“We’re starting to see that swing in the other direction,” he said.

Lesnak maintained that the economic recovery will be a multi-year, slow level of return. Between June 2006 and September 2009, Lesnak said the city of Independence lost about 5,000 jobs, resulting in $223 million in lost wages.

“If we do nothing else next year, we’ve got to get job growth going,” Lesnak said. “It’s going to take some time.”

When Lesnak joined the ICED staff three years ago, no goals were set for the organization, so he helped establish baseline goals for yearly comparisons.

The most disappointing category in 2009, Lesnak said, was capital investment. With a three-year goal of $300 million in businesses’ capital investment, only $135 million has been achieved.

Lesnak said he understands a more conservative approach toward businesses’ capital investment in infrastructure and other projects during an economic downturn, but he said staff will continue to encourage such reinvestment because it adds to the city’s tax base.

While Lesnak coined 2009 as “one of the most challenging times I’ve been involved in” during his 17-year career in economic development, he also experienced “one of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved with.”

The Independence Regional Ennovation Center, a rehabilitation of the former Independence Regional Health Center into an incubator for entrepreneurs, is attracting attention across the Midwest, Lesnak said. Of all the project types the ICED was involved with in 2009, nearly 19 percent were associated with the Ennovation Center, even those its doors have yet to open.

David Edwards, a principal with CEAH Realtors and the Ennovation Center’s project manager, said about $3 million has been spent already to get the former hospital’s systems operational again. Demolition of the north tower will begin within two to three weeks and is scheduled for completion by the end of February, Edwards said.

Tenants will move into the business incubator by late March or early April, he said.

“After the last 24 months,” Edwards said, “it’s really nice to be able to report progress. Things are moving along quite well.”