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Alumbaugh avoids development stance

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

Mayor Jess Alumbaugh said his role in the city’s economic development is to be “a cheerleader” and not “the one steering the boat” Tuesday.

He also put off a decision about how the city should invest in economic development in the future.

The mayor made the remarks during a budget hearing for the mayor’s office, as city council members asked if Alumbaugh would give the Grant County Economic Growth Council money to help offset possible cuts to their local income tax draw next year.

“I believe that most politicians should stay out of development as much as they can,” Alumbaugh said.

The mayor said it’s his experience that the mayor isn’t the best person for attracting developers to the city.

“I think you guys would be surprised and maybe misled, not a lot of developers want to talk to the local elected official … (a lot of developers) would not have wanted the mayor to be the point person,” Alumbaugh said.

The mayor also said his job is not economic development but managing people.

“Mayors are more of a team manager, a facilitator … I would say it’s more of my job to be out with the people in the community, finding the pulse of the community,” Alumbaugh said.

Council member Don Batchelor questioned this approach, asking, “Do you think it’s better suited that you stay in the office than being out there on the front line?”

Alumbaugh said that when developers reach out to him he’ll meet with them, but he’s not actively recruiting businesses to the city.

“When the right business is interested I go and I sit with them … I go and tell them about the great things going on in Marion, about the great people in Marion, and I become a cheerleader for the community and share the good news,” Alumbaugh said. “Be a facilitator but don’t be the one steering the boat, that’s how I try to operate.”

The council asked Alumbaugh who will be steering the boat, in that case.

The Growth Council has essentially taken the place of what used to be a full-time economic development director for the city, Alumbaugh said, but he deferred the question of whether he would support the Growth Council financially as they face losing two-thirds of their EDIT tax income next year.

“It’s your call,” Alumbaugh said when City Council President Brad Luzadder asked if he wanted to support the Growth Council. “You guys are going to have to make some tough decisions. If you don’t keep them, I’d hire somebody else.”

Luzadder reminded Alumbaugh that an additional appropriation for the Growth Council would have to be requested by the mayor.

“I could go either direction, but I have to have somebody to help the development,” Alumbaugh said.

Hiring an economic development director with enough experience could be costly, though, Alumbaugh told the council. He said the city would need to offer about a $150,000 salary to attract someone qualified.

Alumbaugh continued to hedge his opinion on the Growth Council. He reported positive experiences with the Growth Council but said he’d like more feedback from the community about the Growth Council’s effectiveness.

“I’m gauging the interest from local business, what do they think of the Growth Council, was it easy for them to work with, was it worthwhile? I need to get a feel for that, is it worthwhile?” Alumbaugh said. “I’ll tell you this, they’ve done a good job working with me, and we’ve had new business coming into town.”

Alumbaugh agreed it would be “a step backward” if the city didn’t have anyone working toward economic development but continued to put the decision on the city council’s shoulders.

Council member Lynn Johnson said based on the Growth Council’s financial statements the Grants for Grads program would most likely have funding through 2020 and the city could wait until next year to decide if they want to support the Growth Council financially.

Alumbaugh seemed to agree, saying the city could wait and see.

“I could replace (the Growth Council), possibly. Or I could see if they come up with a creative way to fund their own way to absorb the hit they’re taking,” Alumbaugh said.

Luzadder said he was trying to get Alumbaugh to be “proactive” about economic development before it becomes a problem.

Alumbaugh left the meeting without tyelling city council what they should do regarding the question.