May 28, 2023

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Excellence v. Mediocrity

What are the priorities of Lawrence and Kansas University officials? Both need to grow and demand excellence to compete in today’s and tomorrow’s economy. What’s needed to return the vibrancy, enthusiasm and vision that used to be the hallmarks of Lawrence and KU?

What’s missing? Basically the vision and courage to aim high and not settle for mediocrity. There must be an environment and actual action that shows both the city and university want to make the necessary changes that result in a community more attractive and inviting to faculty, students, new business and industry leaders and those looking for a healthy, progressive city in which to work, raise a family and retire.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much excitement or enthusiasm these days in the Lawrence and KU communities about the future.

Lawrence leaders, as well as KU leaders, should have been shocked by recent Journal-World headlines and stories.

One headline asked if downtown Lawrence was dying. That story told of the numbers of merchants who, for various reasons, had decided to close or move their stores out of downtown Lawrence. The widespread belief that recent and current city officials are opposed to business and industrial growth is a major factor. If not “opposed”, at least committed to making it extremely difficult to build and/or grow.

Another story reported Lawrence ranks last among all metro areas when it comes to having enough jobs for college graduates. The study by The Urban Institute of Washington, D.C. highlights how few jobs in Lawrence require a college degree. At 19.6 percent, Lawrence is well below the national average of 25.8 percent. This was a study of 387 U.S. metro areas.

Another story told about the appointment/creation of a team to come up with a new Downtown Master Plan and the hiring of a consultant to oversee, guide and complete the study.

A follow up to the initial story reported only 10 of the recently appointed 17- member steering committee showed up for the first meeting.

What does this say about the degree of commitment and genuine interest in the betterment of the city and the important role of the committee if only 10 out of 17 thought it was important to attend the gathering?

Currently there are vacancies in important senior positions at Lawrence and KU. The city manager is leaving sooner than had been anticipated; the county manager is leaving; the president of the Chamber of Commerce is leaving; there are several top positions at KU which are open; and the chancellor who has been on the job for less than two years has yet to win the enthusiastic support of the faculty.

The search efforts mentioned above are extremely important for all parties. It is critical potential candidates are given an accurate and honest up-to-date profile of Lawrence when considering a possible move to Lawrence or KU.

One person recruited and selected for an important leadership job in Lawrence told this writer that after the move to Lawrence some serious “surprises” or situations surfaced which had not been identified or explained in the recruiting interviews. This is not good and could easily backfire on the city and university.

Lawrence is far different today than it was 10 or 20 years ago. For example, there seems to be far more interest and time devoted to designing street markings for the safety of bicycle riders than there is in attracting business and industry with good-paying jobs. It is important to have safe bike paths but also terribly important to create and have a genuine climate in city hall that is open, receptive and helpful for new and/or expanded business and industry. Also, the citizenry needs to be supportive of a forward-looking community.

Some on the new Downtown Master Plan study committee (or at least 10 out of the 17) appear to place great emphasis on maintaining historic buildings and the development pattern of downtown Lawrence. A few years ago a nationally recognized leader in city government asked this writer, “What buildings built in downtown Lawrence in the past 50 years will be considered ‘historic’ 50 years from now?”

Apparently “historic” is in the eyes of the beholder and those in publicly elected positions. What does this say about the future growth of downtown Lawrence?

Lawrence and KU are at critical crossroads. Both KU and Lawrence face important challenges….money-wise, vision-wise, courage-wise, leadership-wise and commitment-wise.

Today too many in Lawrence and KU are complacent and believe and act as a bright and successful future is guaranteed.

Politically correct decision making is eroding America, returning to core values and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education would be a good start.