As a former economic development official in Iola, David Toland said he understands what it’s like to live and work in a rural area that often feels forgotten.

But Iola, a town of about 5,300 in eastern Kansas, is only about 100 miles from the state capital of Topeka — not like the roughly 300-mile trek from Garden City.

Toland, who was appointed in January as acting Kansas secretary of commerce by Gov. Laura Kelly and confirmed in April, said Tuesday during an interview at The Telegram that he can appreciate the feeling of “disconnect” southwest Kansans often feel with state government.

“While I was traveling in this part of the state, I started to understand that the level of disconnect that we felt in southeast Kansas is nothing compared to what’s experienced by folks in southwest and western Kansas, generally,” said Toland, who toured various sites in Garden City on Tuesday, after visiting Liberal, Scott City and Lakin. “I’m sensitive to that, and I want to do what I can in my small capacity at the Department of Commerce to try to, I guess, show up and be present in this region.”

Local officials and Toland took a bus tour of more than 20 sites in Garden City and Finney County, including St. Catherine Hospital, Schulman Crossing, the local transload facility, the Dairy Farmers of American plant, Garden City High School, Parrot Cove Water Park and the Bonanza BioEnergy ethanol plant, to name a few.

Prior to the tour, Toland visited with The Telegram about a variety of topics, from his plans to infuse new life into the Commerce Department, to state and regional economic development, to trade tensions with China, to workforce development.

The former Thrive Allen County CEO said he feels he must first make changes within the department before he can help bring change around the state.

“This department is one that was once the marquee state agency. It had broad, bipartisan support, it was well funded, it had a cadre of talented economic development professionals that ran deep,” Toland said. “And what happened during the Brownback administration is the Department of Commerce was systematically dismantled.”

The department’s budget is down 45 percent from five years ago, which has negatively impacted its ability to bring new businesses to and identify new export markets for Kansas.

Business leaders care about more than just their tax bills, Toland said. Quality of schools and transportation infrastructure, as well as access to social services, are all factors that businesses consider when determining where they want to locate, he said.

“The fact of the matter is, when you’re doing economic development, it’s not just about tax policy,” Toland said. “And I think that’s one of the things that hurt the Department of Commerce the most the last eight years. It was decimated by ideology — the idea that if you simply eliminate the income tax, that’s enough to make business just flock to Kansas. What we found, very clearly, is that experiment failed. …”

Toland said he is seeking more resources to bolster business recruitment. He recently announced the promotion of Alicia Janesko Hutchings to business recruitment manager within the department, and Chang Lu will serve as south-central states business recruitment project manager.

“We’ve got a talented team that is still there, but there aren’t enough of them and they haven’t had enough resources to do their jobs,” Toland said.

Workforce development is also high on Toland’s priority list. He said there are currently 50,000 unfilled jobs in Kansas.

“That has a profound impact on the ability of businesses to grow, but also just to meet current demands,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m in an urban, or rural or suburban community, it’s the same thing: We need more skilled workers, and we need them now.”

Farmers need help

Another thing needed soon is relief for farmers, Toland said, as the impact of tariffs and the trade war with China has been significant.

“What I hear is that some farmers are at the breaking point,” he said. “What’s frustrating, I guess, from where I sit is there’s not a lot the Kansas Department of Commerce can do to change international trade policies. So, we see and hear and feel the pain these farmers are experiencing, but this is not an issue that is a state level issue. This is about national policy.”

One thing the state can do is identify more trading partners for farmers, said Toland, adding that he'd like to see Kansas have more of a trade presence with Mexico, in particular.

“We need to be opening up new trading markets for Kansas businesses,” he said. “… what we can do at the state level is try to open up new markets that aren’t China to try to take some pressure off Kansas farmers and other businesses that are heavily dependent on exporting.”

Despite uncertainty in the agricultural sector, Toland said there many positive things happening in southwest Kansas. He pointed to the strong health care sector — hospitals in Garden City, Lakin, Liberal and Scott City — that he said could do even more with Medicaid expansion.

Housing is still a challenge for Garden City and much of southwest Kansas, but he feels the region is doing better than other parts of the state.

Toland credits many of the positive developments in southwest Kansas to strong local entrepreneurship.

“I think that’s, in part, because you’ve got local entrepreneurs that are just pitching in, rolling up their sleeves and saying, ‘Hey, we need to fix our community. We need to grow our community, and we can’t wait on Topeka to come and do it for us, we’ve got to do it ourselves.”

A good example is Garden City’s successful efforts to secure STAR Bond status for its Sports of the World project, which Toland said is an economically strong project that he’s optimistic will work to bring people to the region.

He said he’s glad the first STAR Bond project he approved is helping a rural part of the state.

“The diversity of athletic-related attractions is the key. There’s gonna be something for everyone there,” Toland said. “The fact that it’s got a strong retail component — STAR Bonds rely on retail to make them work, and so you’ve got existing retail, as well I believe some new that’s coming with it, that makes it viable over the long term.”

A project like Sports of the World can help the region battle population loss, something Toland sees as one of the biggest problems facing rural Kansas.

“Depopulation of rural Kansas, whether we’re talking southwest Kansas or southeast Kansas where I’m from, is having a profound impact on business, but also just on civic institutions,” he said.

Contact Brett Riggs at briggs@gctelegram.com.