Industrial and downtown development in Finney County may get a boost under the auspices of a new program that recently became available to communities with economically distressed areas.

During the Finney County Economic Development Corp.’s monthly board meeting on Wednesday, FCEDC President Lona DuVall told board members that state officials have selected two census tracts in Finney County to be submitted to the federal government for approval for a program that would encourage long-term investment through tax incentives for the reinvestment of unrealized capital gains, and one of those tracts might include Garden City’s downtown area.

The program that became open to applications last month through the Department of Commerce allows communities to submit proposals designating eligible low-income census tracts as Kansas Opportunity Zones under the new Federal Opportunity Zones program.

According to the KDC, opportunity zones are a new economic development tool enacted by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 designed to encourage long-term investment in low-income urban and rural communities.

Gov. Jeff Colyer has touted the program as an opportunity that dovetails with his administration’s commitment to boost urban and rural communities struggling with population decline, few jobs and crumbling infrastructure.

DuVall said the FCEDC submitted five eligible census tracts in Finney County prioritized by importance. She said priority was based on opportunity for large investment in industrial projects, and the second on the list included the city’s core district and an extended area to the west of it.

“We did receive word from the governor’s office that they have selected at least two of our census tracts to be submitted to the federal government for their approval, which is very exciting,” DuVall said. “We feel very good about the fact that they’re considering two for Finney County, so that should create some very good opportunities for us.”

All that’s left is for the federal government to approve the tracts, at which point they will be revealed to the public.

According to the KDC, the governor can designate 70 census tracts in Kansas as opportunity zones that are based upon the number of low-income communities identified by the federal census. Tract eligibility is determined by population and income.

In addition to federal eligibility criteria, the state considers other factors in determining which tracts will be designated as opportunity zones, such as indication of community interest, support for additional investment, and the presence of at least one readymade project that would address target uses, including industrial and business development, housing and agriculture.

In other business, DuVall noted that the FCEDC has made more headway in its effort to develop a solution to the county’s childcare shortfall. The issue has been a key focus for about two years because there are roughly 500 childcare slots, or openings, needed to meet the community’s demand.

“That was as of a few years ago,” DuVall said of the 2012 estimate, “so we’re probably only in a worse situation because there certainly hasn’t been improvement in that unfortunately, but it really is a multi-tier issue and really had to be addressed from a very comprehensive standpoint.”

DuVall said she hopes to present a systematic, long-term solution to board members in the near future that will address workforce needs for new facilities and utilize the potential employment base being generated by Garden City High School’s early childhood education pathway.

“The high school track is certainly getting (students) to the point that they’re very employable, and then we just really need that opportunity to keep them in the community and allow them to further their education should they choose to do that,” she said.

She added that employers have given good feedback during conversations about the shortage as the FCEDC attempts to develop a solution that not only addresses existing workforce needs through childcare, but also facilitates a communitywide learning network that better prepares children for the education system.

Aspiring childcare providers already tackling the issue are running into regulatory issues, DuVall said, and there needs to be a more streamlined process “that folks who should be able to operate a childcare center are able to do so.”

The FCEDC has arranged talks with Rep. Leonard Mastroni, R-Lacrosse, who sits on the House Children and Seniors Committee. He will review the regulatory hurdles of establishing childcare facilities with the FCEDC in April.

“Unfortunately, I think as with a lot of things, several different agencies have gotten involved in some way with childcare at the state level, and they don’t necessarily always know what the other arm is doing, which is fairly common,” DuVall said.

She added that while regulatory responses to misfortunes that occur in the childcare arena probably aren’t intended to interfere with efforts to expand childcare in the state, the major reactionary regulations that have unfolded in recent years “may or may not” be subject to change through legislative pressure.

DuVall said the FCEDC’s goal is to generate legislative impact through discussions about regulatory relief, while also putting more focus at the state level on programs that acknowledge the importance of a child’s formative development from the time of birth.

“It’s not just a Finney County problem,” DuVall said. “It is absolutely a statewide problem, regardless of community size. This is an issue that needs to be developed, and obviously our goal is that if we’re able to develop a good, workable solution, it will be replicable and communities across the state of Kansas can benefit from the work we’ve done in Finney County.”

FCEDC Board Chairman Tom Walker noted that childcare and related early learning programs directly affect the workforce and the potential to free up a second member of each household for employment. He said he is hopeful a possible solution will be presented at the next board meeting.

 

Contact Mark Minton at mminton@gctelegram.com.