The Chamber of Lawrence, Kansas
The Chamber of Lawrence, Kansas
Cities are always looking for ways to attract entrepreneurs, young professionals, and even residents to their area. And today, with nearly one in four Americans qualifying as a member of the Millennial generation, attracting people to cities and communities has come to be all but synonymous with attracting Millennials.
And the Chamber of Lawrence, Kansas has grown particularly attuned to this trend.
Recently, Lawrence, Kansas has been cited by multiple publications (including Business Insider and Advertising Age) as the place for Millennials. This is a big deal: the generation’s older cohort is done with college, poised either to start a new career, or with a career just starting to get off the ground. They’re moving into positions of influence in their professional lives, and looking for someplace to settle down for the long haul in their personal lives.
So why are so many of them choosing to settle down in Lawrence, Kansas? What does a place like Lawrence, a college town on the northeastern edge of the state have to offer that makes it so appealing to today’s youngest professionals? Lindsey Slater, Communications Director for the Chamber of Lawrence, Kansas says the city’s appeal has a lot to do with its diversity of opportunity.
“Lawrence is a community that doesn’t lack anything, but it’s a small enough town where you can get everywhere in fifteen minutes,” Slater explained. She said the area has a great music scene and several museums. For the sports fan, the University of Kansas right in Lawrence’s backyard, so there are Big 12 basketball, football, soccer, and baseball teams to root for, not to mention KU’s women’s volleyball team, which is currently ranked fourth in the country. And should you find that you require something that can’t be found in Lawrence, then Kansas City is within easy driving distance—just 40 minutes away on I-70.
Slater grew up in Southern Illinois, right outside of St. Louis. When she went off to college, it was in Chicago, at Northwestern University, so she’s no stranger to the simultaneous convenience and hassle of living in a big city. With just under 90,000 residents, Lawrence is heavy on city-like convenience and accessibility, but without the traffic and high cost of living associated with urban living.
“One of my best friends from college is from New York City, born and raised,” Slater said. “When i told her I was moving to Kansas, she could not believe it. She was just, ‘Why would you move there? What’s wrong with you? There’s nothing there.’ And now she comes to visit me every year because she loves it,” Slater chuckled. “She thinks [Lawrence] is the coolest town.”
Another part of Lawrence’s appeal to young professionals is the number of work-related opportunities that constitute a bit of a departure from the typical desk-job. “We have a ton of nonprofits; we have a lot of small businesses; and we have a lot of start-ups,” Slater explained. “There’s a lot of support for entrepreneurs in our community, which I think is what’s really popular with Millennials. There’s this idea of, ‘I don’t want to work at a big corporation. I have this idea and I want to start a company.’” In Lawrence, there’s room for that sort of creativity.
One way that the Chamber of Lawrence, Kansas meets the needs of entrepreneurs is through its collaboration with KU’s Small Business Development Center, which is headquartered right in the chamber building. There, people can pitch their business ideas to staff members—who field about 360 proposals a year—who will help them flesh an idea out and lend practical advice for getting it off the ground.
The Chamber of Lawrence, Kansas also works with the Bioscience and Technology Business Center (BTBC), which is a partnership among the chamber, the city, county, and university leadership. Slater estimates that there are currently about 45 different companies incubating at the BTBC, and the institution has been a tremendous catalyst for growth in the area.
But perhaps the most distinctive collaborative endeavor underway at the Chamber is that of the Dwayne Peaslee Technical Training Center, otherwise known as Peaslee Tech. This initiative involves the Chamber, the Economic Development Corporation, the city of Lawrence, and Douglas County, as well as three community colleges in Kansas, with whom Peaslee contracts for instructors. Because of the number of players involved, Peaslee Tech is especially representative of the Lawrence Chamber’s role in the community, as it speaks to the effectiveness with which the chamber and the university are able to work together toward a common goal.
One of the biggest challenges facing the city of Lawrence right now is workforce development. As Slater pointed out, this challenge reflects some national trends in workforce needs—it is not unique to Lawrence. What is unique, however, is the way in which the Chamber of Lawrence, Kansas has really stepped up to the plate in combatting the worker shortage inits community.
Chamber President Larry McElwain said that workforce training is an asset that had been missing from Lawrence for decades: “I think we were so focused on higher education for years and years, that we weren’t paying much attention to workforce training in the technical area,” he explained. McElwain added that even during his early years with the chamber, where he served four terms on the chamber board over a 40-year period, “We talked about how the industry’s needed HVAC people and refrigeration people and people that could work on pneumatics and hydraulics. And we’ve finally addressed the issue.”
That’s where Peaslee Tech comes in. Prior to the training center’s opening, the chamber’s goal was to open it with 100 students enrolled. Fifteen months ago, Peaslee Tech opened its doors to 150 students. By Slater’s estimates, they had about 320 students at the beginning of fall of this year.
“Our executive director over at Peaslee Tech [Marvin Hunt] and I were in a meeting a couple of weeks ago,” Slater recalled, “and he was like, ‘I’m already getting phone calls for our people that are going to graduate in 2017.’ There’s just a need for those technical training skills and for manufacturing and engineering [jobs].” Slater added that what makes Peaslee Tech even more remarkable is just how many players were involved in turning the idea into a reality.
“It’s a really unique thing because it’s the Chamber, the Economic Development Center, the city, the county, all working together,” she explained. “It was a true partnership to get Peaslee up and running, because we all saw the need to help move Lawrence forward.”
While developing workers in the technical fields is a major goal of the Chamber at Lawrence, Kansas, so is retaining the graduating students from the University of Kansas.
“We have two efforts here at the chamber that are on parallel pathways,” McElwain explained. “Number one is business attraction and recruitment, and number two is business retention and expansion.” Fittingly, business retention and expansion deals with looking at the companies that already exist in Lawrence and finding ways to help them flourish and grow. Recruitment and attraction, on the other hand, also plays into keeping college graduates in town after they’ve crossed the stage at the University of Kansas.
“We’re going to need to focus on bringing companies and industries here that will be attractive for graduates [from KU],” McElwain said, noting, specifically, the need to maintain plenty of opportunities in various “white collar” sectors. “Light manufacturing is the backbone of industry, and we’ll continue to work to give young people, and older people, a chance for those kinds of jobs,” he added, “but I think we also need to focus on trying to take an asset that’s already here, coming out of the university, and find ways to retain them in the area by having companies here that will hire them coming out of KU.”
Such partnerships with the University of Kansas not only serve to foster economic growth and prosperity, but they have also made for a stronger sense of community in the area. As McElwain explained, “When you have a positive relationship between a city, county, chamber, and the university, you don’t have the old ‘town/gown’ split.” McElwain said that such a divide is not uncommon in college towns, and it can make it harder for everyone to reach their goals.
“Yes, there are challenges, and yes, we are addressing those challenges, but I think the spirit that exists here is to work through those challenges and look at the good of the whole,” McElwain said. “When any community can be looking toward the good of the whole, then I think that will be a community that does the right thing.”
For more information on the Chamber of Lawrence, Kansas, visit www.lawrencechamber.com.