Belton Mayor Jeff Davis says the city’s decision to cut ties with the Belton Corporation for Economic Development was made based on an issue due to a lack of accountability.
“I ran on a campaign to change the way we do business,” Davis said. “There was no accountability at all with the program.”
During a special city council meeting June 4, the council elected to kill the city’s 20-year partnership with the independent organization and for the city to create their own in-house economic development department by a vote of 7-1.
Davis said the city was investing $100,000 annually into the partnership that wasn’t yielding any hard metrics in return, and when the city’s contract with the BCED was set to expire June 9, changes were needed.
“We invested $1.4 million over 14 years. Accountability means, ‘What do you get in return?’” Davis said. “In the beginning, we probably got some good things but as we evolved it changed a great deal. It’s kind of like a money pit situation. We’re not seeing, hearing. By going in-house, it’s a single point-of-contact and for efficiency, it’s a one-stop shop. We’ll have better coordination of the public’s money and being good stewards.”
The BCED’s goals, according to the city of Belton’s website, included aiding, assisting, encouraging and promoting the development and expansion of business concerns in the city.
In recent history, longtime Executive Director Art Ruiz said the BCED was involved with the development of the Belton-Cass County Transportation District and the Town Center shopping area, as well as being involved in the recent expansions at Belton Regional Medical Center, bringing Metropolitan Community College into the city, and advising Belton city leaders as to what position to take with the development of the former Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base into becoming the Kansas City Southern Intermodal Center.
Working alongside a 12-member board of directors, which has traditionally included the city manager and mayor, Ruiz led the organization for more than 14 years.
“It’s been a great ride. In the lifespan of economic developers, I’ve probably outlived them all in one location. It’s all business, and it’s understandable in the profession that I am in,” said Ruiz, of the council’s decision. “I feel really blessed to have served the community of Belton.”
The immediate future of the BCED, which carries a valid not-for-profit status, has not yet been determined. It’s a decision the program’s board will have to make.
Ruiz said the board includes two bankers, a longstanding real estate appraiser, school board representatives and finance managers.
“We have a very professional board of directors,” he said. “It’s going to be up to them if they want to meet once a year, quarterly, or whatever.”
Ruiz said his involvement with volunteer-driven Downtown Belton Main Street, Inc. will not be affected by the city’s recent decision, and fully intends to fulfill his obligations to the project.
The new city-run economic development department will be overseen by Community Development Director Jay Leipzig.
“He’s already been doing quite a bit of work. He’s a big marketing guy and he’s a wiz at practical partnership,” Davis said. “He’s a positive voice with local government on economic development. We got to be accountable for every dime and everything that we do. We want a positive return on our city’s economic investment.”
City Manager Ron Trivitt initially proposed the issue to the council during an earlier meeting.
During the brief gathering on June 4, Ward 3 councilman Everett Loughridge recommended adopting a 60-day contract with the BCED to help with the transition.
Trivitt said there may be enough money to fund one additional month, but funding two months would require a budget amendment and there was a question as to whether the city would have enough money from the hotel/motel tax fund before the end of the year.
Before voting on the resolution, the council acknowledged Ruiz.
Ruiz thanked the council for the opportunity to work with the community, and noted that he will work with Leipzig through the transition for the betterment of the community.
Trivitt told the council that he believes Leipzig is excited and capable in guiding the direction of the new department.
Ward 3 representative Al Hoag was the lone councilman to vote against the proposal. Ward 2 councilman Justin Neff was absent from the meeting.
In previous attempts to make changes as to how the city oversees their economic development growth, Davis said the city discussed with Ruiz about an opportunity to come on staff at the city, but said Ruiz was not interested.
One of the first items on Leipzig’s list of things to get done is to develop a website for the new department – another area where Davis said the BCED was failing.
“We haven’t had a webpage for economic development – ever – in 14 years. That’s a big thing to me and the council,” Davis said. “If somebody across the country wants to find out about Belton’s economic development and ability, they can’t see anything because there’s no web page and there’s no development sites posted.”
Davis said every other surrounding community offers that capability.
“We’re going to bring Belton into the 21st-century tugging and screaming,” he said. “We’ve got to be more systemic and data-driven. In 14 years, we have no data. ‘What’s our analytical look at economic development?’ We have no analytics.”
With the transition, Leipzig will transfer his code enforcement activities to the police department to have more time to focus on economic development opportunities.
“We’re going to identify all stakeholders and we’ll create a blueprint. In that blueprint, we’ll have our best practices,” Davis said.