While 2016 proved to be a year of transition for the Harvey County Economic Development Council, Executive Director Beth Shelton has made it clear the organization wanted to solidify its direction in 2017.

Since taking over last August, Shelton has placed an emphasis on retaining and growing local businesses (with the help of associate Jennifer Mueller). Those efforts have been fruitful and remain a focus, though recruitment of new business remains a key goal of the EDC as well.

In regards to the latter, the EDC hired the firm of Garner Economics to study it from the perspective of a potential business to gain a better understanding of how it can improve those efforts to attract new industry— a "strategic planning lite," as Shelton put it.

Garner shared its findings at Harvey County EDC's annual meeting on Tuesday at the Meridian Center, with president and founder Jay Garner noting the company gets a glimpse at the whole picture — helping corporations select sites for expansion (facilitating $8 to $10 billion in investments annually) as well as providing economic development strategies for communities of all sizes, though he was clear what was presented on Tuesday was not a fully comprehensive plan.

"It's very laser-focused and it will guide your business solicitation focus over the next five years," Garner said.

Responding to requests from potential businesses has not been an issue, as Shelton noted the EDC has responded to more RFPs in 2017 so far than all of 2016, but there have been issues drawing those projects into Harvey County. The report from Garner looked at a number of the factors contributing to that, both in data gathered by the firm and the results of an electronic community survey.

According to the survey, perceived weaknesses of Harvey County include a lack of retail options, quality restaurants and amenities for young professionals, while respondents also called for a strategic plan to diversify the set of industries/employment opportunities in the county, the creation of a regional vision and to attract jobs to reduce the need to commute for work.

Some of those factors came up in the data Garner looked it, which showed Harvey County does have assets like access to transportation, the availability of a skilled workforce and low cost of living (among others), but the lack of suitable industrial and office space, high cost of utilities (i.e. electricity, gas, etc.) and limited access to international markets are all challenges to local economic development.

Certain factors could potentially be worked around, as Garner noted the lack of apartment housing (with 13 active listings as of the end of April) is viewed as a challenge, but the county leveraging its geographic location could make up for that. While Harvey County has a labor force of about 17,000, according to Garner analyst David Versel, it can pull from a labor force of nearly 400,000 within a 50-mile radius.

"If you create the right jobs here, you can draw people from that entire radius to commute to work here," Versel said.

The right jobs is exactly what Garner is looking to help Harvey County attract through the results of its reports. Finding that the manufacturing and health care industries continue to expand locally, those were some of the key business sectors targeted for local solicitation, especially the former.

From 2011 to 2016, more than half the job growth (756 of 1,200 jobs added) in Harvey County stemmed from manufacturing, with health care the only other industry to add more than 100 jobs.

"Manufacturing sticks out like a sore thumb," Versel said. "It's one of your biggest industries, it's you're most heavily-concentrated industry and it's been your fastest growing industry."

Looking at manufacturing as the county's "bread and butter," Garner suggested the EDC target agribusiness and agricultural manufacturing as well as continuing to look into adding industrial products manufacturing, diversifying the latter and making the most of commodities that already exist locally in regards to the former — with Garner noting a potential to expand on food and beverage processing jobs in particular (given the right facilities).

Other business sectors recommended to target included transportation, distribution and wholesale, health care and local entrepreneurial/retail development. With the latter, Versel noted it is not the "meat and potatoes" of economic development, but something more typically handled at the municipal level.

"The quality of your public and private leadership drives economic development success," Garner said.

Retail development can also be viewed as an amenity and while that was not the focus of the Garner report, the necessity of those assets was circled back to time and again.

Attendees questioned what amenities should be the focal point, and while Versel pointed to restaurants and night life in particular, he noted how important amenities are in the big picture to addressing some of the county's challenges (i.e. growth).

"If you look at other similar-sized counties and cities to Newton, Newton is lacking. We have to be honest with you," Versel said. "There's a lot of great things about this community, but you just are not that competitive on this front in terms of having these amenities that make people want to live and work here and there's going to need to be a great deal of emphasis put on on improving all this as part of your overall economic development strategy."

Ultimately, Garner recommended developing more speculative space to attract some of the targeted industries and thinking about being flexible with the space the county already has, like the Kansas Logistics Park. Additional recommendations included developing more entrepreneurial support, which should start with partnering with a local college — as 32 percent of all business incubators nationally are sponsored by academic institutions.

Engaging in discussion with other firms about retail development and branding were other suggestions made by Garner, though having the right personnel in place and getting them on the same page was something he also mentioned, a sentiment shared by EDC board president Ron Lang.

"This engagement was not to pat anybody on the back. This engagement was to trigger thought," Lang said. "Our challenges are ahead of us."

For the full Garner report, visit www.harveycoedc.com.