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Who says 'Nothing's going on in Marshall'?Posted Friday, October 1, 2010, at 4:30 PM
It was only a few weeks after I moved to Marshall 4-1/2 years ago that I met then-Mayor Connie Latimer and Marshall Democrat-News publisher Shelly Arth at a couples golf outing.
Apart from the enjoyment of playing golf on a lovely day in mid-May, I enjoyed the company of both women and their partners, never dreaming our paths would soon cross professionally.
By the following September, I was working at the newspaper as a clerk; it wasn't long before I was reporting full-time, occasionally interviewing Latimer on a variety of subjects. We have managed to play golf again, but just a few times, so it wasn't until last week, at the end of my tenure as a staff writer for the newspaper, that we were able to sit down for a lengthy conversation.
Now Marshall's city manager, Latimer wanted to talk about the past and the future of Marshall, from her point of view, following three days at the Governor's Conference on Economic Development, held mid-September in Kansas City.
Latimer said she came away from the conference with the sure knowledge that despite economic hard times everywhere, Marshall is doing better than a lot of other cities.
"I'd never been to the conference, but I went this year to get a feel for other places and what their barriers are to economic development. Other areas have been hit harder than we have," she said.
Statistics from the Missouri Department of Economic Development support that opinion.
As of August 2010, Marshall's unemployment rate is 8.8 percent, down slightly from 8.9 percent last year at this time. The national rate stands at 9.9 percent. For that same period, unemployment in Warrensburg is 9.3 percent; in Mexico, 9.1 percent; and in Moberly, 10.1 percent. In Lafayette County the rate is at 9.9 percent.
Latimer pointed to the airport as one distinguishing factor in Marshall's favor.
"We are better off economically than cities without an airport. We got $7.2 million in work and funding on that project, and only spent $370,000. But projects like that one don't jump up and wave a flag every day, so they can be seen. Now that the airport can provide fuel 24/7, we get business from cross-country nighttime flyers, in addition to the other flyers," she said.
Latimer said she also came away from the conference with the knowledge that virtually every city official faces the same obstacles to progress and the same misconceptions about what (whether) progress is taking place in their cities and towns.
"I've heard people complain that there is 'nothing going on in Marshall,'" she said. "But people forget a project or an improvement once it's finished. They forget we haven't always had a community center, a modern airport, a cancer center. And, to be honest, I forget it sometimes, too. Then, when I'm showing someone around town, seeing the progress reminds me."
Latimer said that local projects sometimes don't benefit any one person directly, so they're overlooked. "If you don't need the cancer center today, you don't see it. If you don't attend events at the Martin Community Center, you don't see it," she said.
"People need to see brick and mortar or they think nothing's happening," she continued. But, she said, the trip to the governor's conference made her realize that "everybody (in government) has those same problems. They're not unique to Marshall."
Latimer pointed to ConAgra's recent expansion as another project that might have been overlooked by some.
"Part of our participation in that agreement was that ConAgra would add and maintain 150 new jobs," she said. The expansion actually resulted in 185 new positions.
Latimer acknowledged that part of that project is incomplete. "The open area along Arrow Street still needs some trees," she said. "We're working with them on that. The company will buy the trees, the city will plant them and take care of watering them."
Attending the conference with Latimer was MSDC head Roy Hunter, who has also been the target of sharp criticism with regard to the role the organization he heads has played in local economic development.
"The 'big buzz' at the conference was a deal made by a city about Marshall's size," Latimer said. That city shouldered $15 million in revenue bonds, built a building and allowed a company to move in their equipment and start production. If the planned project isn't successful, Latimer pointed out, the company moves on, and the city is left with $15 million in revenue bonds and an empty building that, in these difficult times, might remain empty for a long time.
"That's a pretty big risk," Latimer said. "We can't compete with an offer like that. And if we did take on a project like that, it would mean other projects we might want to do couldn't be done."
Latimer said that in the past, small cities like Marshall would be matched with projects at the state level.
"Prospective developers would be told that a particular project might work well in Marshall and two or three other cities. It doesn't work that way anymore. Now cities are organized by district and compete with a lot more cities for even fewer projects," she said.
Of particular concern to Latimer is a charge floating around the internet and elsewhere that the city is "anti-business." The comments arose in part from a planning and zoning issue surrounding a pallet business owned by Scott Miller.
Briefly, Miller's business is located in an area zoned for agricultural use. Miller sought rezoning of a one-acre plot to light industrial use so semi-trailer trucks can be parked on the property. The city's planning and zoning commission denied the request.
"The P & Z Commission cannot give a special use permit where the land is already zoned as agricultural. The city council, however, can do so, and it's everybody's intention to develop a permit that (Miller) can use for the life of his business," Latimer said.
"It has never been anyone's intention to run anyone out of business," she emphasized.
Latimer said she and Miller have been in close contact on this issue, and said she is confident he understands the city's position.
"Scott commented to me recently, 'If you let everyone do what they want, wouldn't we have a mess?'" she said.
Latimer reiterated that zoning regulations limits aren't meant to limit economic development, but are put in place for everyone's protection.
"We work hard so the zoning decisions we make don't negatively impact the city," she said.
The last item we covered in our long conversation concerned the topic of "they" -- those perhaps imaginary folks who, it's often said, control economic development in Marshall and Saline County.
The subject of "they," as in "'They' don't want this town to have a (insert name of business) here," or "'They' control things in Marshall,' has frequently been the topic of conversation on the newspaper's Speak Out blog.
"At one time, maybe there were individuals who had more "say" about things in Marshall than others," she said. "But those people are gone now. If they worked here at the city, they are gone."
"Thing are going on in Marshall all the time," she said. "Just because we're not talking about it right now -- today -- doesn't mean that nothing is happening."
As a citizen of Marshall, I'm inclined to agree with Latimer. Four years at the newspaper have only reinforced my belief that there's always more going on in any given place than meets the eye.
I've been impressed with the progress made in the short time I've lived here. We have an excellent hospital that was expanded recently and a new cancer center treatment center attached to it. That's on top of a move by the health department from a cramped space in an aging building to a brand-new center and the construction of a modern ambulance facility.
The courthouse, in dire need of restoration when I arrived, is beautiful again. In addition to renovations at the airport, there's a lovely community center and a museum nearby.
If you are one of those who believe "nothing's going on in Marshall," I urge you to see our city through this newcomer's eyes. You might like what you see.
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Kathy Fairchild received a Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration in 1986 from Marycrest College, Davenport, Iowa. She is also a 2003 graduate of the paralegal program at New York University. She moved to Marshall in 2006, following a career of more than 30 years with the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer. She is an Air Force brat and grandmother of four.