Second Quarter 2012
story by MARK FAGAN
photos by STEVE HERTZOG
Among Lawrence residents who have jobs, nearly one in three travel outside the city limits to work — whether it’s to state agencies in Topeka, software firms in Johnson County or anywhere else employers issue paychecks for services rendered.
Now some Lawrence residents and business leaders are accelerating efforts to slow the flow of money leaving town, educating commuters in the broad benefits of purchasing items and services large and small right here at home.
“It would be the equivalent of bringing in a new manufacturing plant, or numerous businesses to town,” said Harry Herington, a Lawrence resident and “buy local” advocate who commutes to his job as CEO of NIC Inc. in Olathe. “You’re already spending the money; spend it at home. Benefit your neighbors. Take care of your own streets. Take care of your own parks. The best way to do that is just to think for a second: ‘If I’m getting gas, if I’m getting milk, if I’m buying a car — whatever — do it at home.’ ”Herington could very well be the face of “Live It Local,” a campaign from the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce to build support for hometown folks doing all they can to support the businesses, governments and, in turn, quality-of-life attributes that make Lawrence the livable place that it is.
Raising awareness among commuters is among the effort’s most essential components.
The concept is simple: People who commute for work should think twice before filling up their gas tanks in Topeka, stopping by the grocery store in Overland Park, or picking up a shirt, refrigerator or even another car anywhere else.
That’s because keeping such spending at home makes a difference. Direct revenues make their way into the pockets of fellow Lawrence residents in the forms of employee wages, business profits and suppliers’ sales, money that then can turn over — and over and over again — throughout the community. Taxes on motor fuels pour into Lawrence City Hall, paving the way for nearly $3 million a year in road repairs, sidewalk upgrades, snow-removal operations and other basic needs.
Dropping $45 on a tank of unleaded across the state line in Missouri might be a convenient stop during a lunch break, but waiting instead until getting back into Lawrence can pump even more money into Lawrence’s economic, social and governmental engines.
Brian Watson knows the math. As assistant finance director for the city of Lawrence, he understands what a difference dollars spent in town can make for municipal government and all the residents, businesses and other institutions that depend on its services and projects. He feels better knowing that when he puts together budget information at City Hall, his own financial contributions — while stopping in for gas, taquitos, a 52-ounce Coca-Cola and other essentials at least twice a week along 23rd Street in southeast Lawrence — are adding up.
While Watson himself lives 55 minutes away, in Raymore, Mo., he’s confident that Lawrence residents increasingly will buy into the “Live It Local” message, once they understand what’s at stake.
“If you’re paying that tax,” Watson says, “it’s going back into the roads you’re using.”
But simple awareness won’t be enough to keep spending at home. Businesses still need to overcome close-to-work conveniences favored by commuters
Take it from Lawrence resident Steve Kelly, who does his best to spend money at home. He’ll fill up the fuel tank of the family car during the weekend, and hit the grocery store close to home.
But Kelly works in Topeka, as deputy secretary for business development at the Kansas Department of Commerce — where he’s responsible for economic-development programs and efforts that have helped draw International Speedway Corporation to invest $650 million in a new racetrack in Kansas City, Kan., and to spur that much and more of retail and entertainment development in adjacent Village West.
Competition in business is a reality, and Kelly acknowledges that he finds himself stepping out on Wanamaker Road in Topeka to pick up clothes, compare prices on appliances and see what else might be available to fit his family’s needs.
Face it: He’s in Topeka during the work day. It’s up to Lawrence businesses, he figures, to offer the products and services and hours of operation to convince him to keep his money in his wallet until he gets home.
“I understand the push for shopping locally,” Kelly says. “(But) to think you’re going to keep all the dollars in town, it’s wishful thinking. It’s just not realistic, because of proximity, and because of convenience.”
Businesses in Lawrence need to think of commuters’ needs, he says, if they want to secure commuters’ spending. A good place to start: Being open for commuters when they’re home.
“Remember, they’re not just competing with people in their market,” Kelly says, acknowledging Lawrence’s placement between expansive offerings in Topeka to the west and Johnson County and the Kansas City metro area to the east. “They’re competing with all these other folks. A lot of people, like me, have a limited amount of time to deal with. If you’re closed, I’m not going to work too hard to get around that.”
Jean Milstead couldn’t agree more. A retired banker and former chairwoman of the Lawrence chamber, Milstead now serves as the organization’s interim vice president for economic development. She’s familiar with businesses throughout the community, including many that could use a financial boost from commuters who might be spending elsewhere.
Some of those shops are closed on Sundays, which can be a frustrating sign for folks looking for a place to buy after working hard elsewhere all week.
“It’s fine to encourage people to buy local,” Milstead says. “But if they’re not open to people when they’re here, they can’t spend their money.”
Dale Willey isn’t taking any chances. The CEO of Dale Willey Automotive expanded his dealership on South Iowa Street nine years ago, with particular attention paid to expanding service bays and hiring additional employees to address the needs of commuters. His Express Service department is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each weekday, plus another seven hours on Saturday, to help accommodate folks who want to keep their dollars — and service records — at home.
“Now we’re seeing people who normally hadn’t,” Willey says. “It all adds up.”
Scott Zaremba has added commuter-friendly fare at some of his Zarco stations in the Lawrence area. His Scooter’s Coffeehouse locations provide coffee for those on the go, and he and Peach Madl are partnering on Sandbar Subs to offer fresh food.
His plan: Provide “better products, better services and better people” for all of his potential customers, including those who might be driving 22 or 45 or 63 miles each way, each day, to a workplace outside of town.
“If you look at the big picture, what the whole impact is, it makes sense to spend your money here,” says Zaremba, whose company has 70 employees. “The reason you live here is you like the community. Otherwise, you’d live in Kansas City or Topeka. Everybody looks for lifestyle, the quality of life. That’s what we have here.”
And that’s why folks like Zaremba, Willey, Milstead and others are working to see that “Live It Local” picks up speed in Lawrence, especially among commuters. Local spending means local benefits.
Herington is convinced he’ll see more of his neighbors keeping their money at home in the coming months, as word of the campaign — and its benefits — spreads.
“For most people it never dawns on them, so there has to be communication,” says Herington, whose company’s systems process $70 billion in electronic transactions each year on behalf of 27 state governments and two federal agencies. “There has to be education: It’s beyond just buying a product. Where does that money trickle down to? It improves our streets. It improves our schools. It improves our neighbors, because they’re working at those facilities. And it’ll help the overall economic growth of Lawrence.”
Buying into the “Live It Local” approach isn’t difficult or even inconvenient, Herington says. It simply means changing one’s mindset, a shift he and the chamber are looking forward to seeing Lawrence commuters embrace.
Related Sidebar: Harry Herington