by Murrel Bland
The number of Kansans working today, about 1.4 million, is about the same number as those working before the “Great Recession” hit in 2007. That was the message that Dan Lara brought to the Congressional Forum at its monthly luncheon meeting at the Reardon Convention Center.
Lara, who handles public affairs for the Kansas Department of Commerce, was the featured speaker at the meeting. He was substituting for his boss, Pat George, who is Secretary of Commerce. George was attending to family business.
Lara is a former press secretary for Sam Brownback when he was U.S. senator. Brownback is now governor seeking his second term.
Lara told of various success stories of companies that the Department of Commerce has helped including two in Lenexa. They are Quest Diagnostics which will employ 500 persons and Grantham University that will employ 400.
The employment rate in Kansas in May was 4.8 percent compared to 6.1 percent this time last year, according to the Kansas Department of Labor. The unemployment rate in Wyandotte County for May was 7.8 percent.
The Commerce Department has launched the “KanVet” program that is an aggressive effort to employee military veterans. It asks private and public sector employers to take a pledge to help hire veterans; those who have taken the pledge include Country Club Bank, Kansas City Power and Light and Rental City. After businesses take the pledge, staff members from the Commerce Department work with businesses to link qualified veterans with job openings.
Lara also told of the Rural Opportunity Zone program offered in 73 Kansas counties. Such counties are authorized to provide a state income tax waiver for up to five years or to pay student loans up to $15,000 or both. To be eligible for the program, a person must establish residency in one of the 73 counties after July 1, 2011, live outside Kansas for five years previous and have earned less than $10,000 in each of the five years before coming to Kansas.
Lara said the program was successful in attracting engineering graduates, among other professionals.
Bob Kimball, a member of the Congressional Forum whose family was a longtime business owner in the Fairfax industrial area, questioned whether the program was fair to engineering students who were Kansas residents and graduates of the University of Kansas or Kansas State University; they would not be eligible.
I asked Lara if there was any possibility for an urban opportunity zone in Wyandotte County. I explained that Wyandotte County faces the same problem as many rural counties with the loss of population. Lara said such an urban program might be considered.
Murrel Bland is the former editor of The Wyandotte West and The Piper Press. He is the executive director of Business West.