By JAMES BELL
During a four-day trip across western Kansas, primarily in the northwest corner of the state, Lt. Gov. David Toland made a stop in Hays.
During the trip, he visited with Grow Hays Executive Director Doug Williams while touring housing developments in the city along with Grow Hays' downtown co-working space, Briefspace.
“We’re really trying to take the temperature in this part of the state,” Toland said. “(To) see how things are going, see where there are more opportunities for growth and also where there are some pain points that are restricting growth.”
Housing, he said, is one of the main areas of concern he noted during the trip, along with workforce needs.
“I have asked in every town I have been in, ‘How many houses do you have on the market?’ And the answers have ranged from zero to 12,” he said. “And so there is a real scarcity of housing products in rural communities in particular.”
He heard this message repeated during the tour but also sought input into how to best address the issue.
“What I try to do is ask a lot of questions and listen,” Toland said. “These folks know best what their needs are and what it is going to take to address that.”
He said it comes down to a supply issue.
“There is simply not enough units that are available right now,” he said. “That creates pressure points for businesses, that creates pressure points for families that are growing and so on down the line.”
To fully identify housing concerns, he said, Gov. Laura Kelly has launched the first statewide housing assessment in 27 years.
“That housing assessment is being conducted so that (we can) understand how many units are needed, what types of units are needed …And then, where geographically do these units need to go in order to be able to support business growth?” he said.
Locally, Toland visited the site of a rural housing incentive district at 22nd and Wheatland, a project designed to help create more workforce housing in Ellis County.
“He said it was great to see a project that was underway,” Williams said. “He signed off on a lot of these projects, but he has never been to one that is in progress.”
But along with the housing concerns, Toland said a shortage of labor is also harming area economies.
“There are longstanding issues with the availability of labor,” he said. “Not just in northwest Kansas, but across the state.”
He noted 41,000 jobs in Kansas are currently unfilled and paired with a 3.7 percent unemployment statewide, finding people to fill those jobs is a challenge.
“We need more bodies in the workforce and we need them now,” Toland said. “That’s the message we heard loud and clear from businesses.”
Among housing and workforce concerns, he said ancillary factors must also be considered.
“We have really tried to take an expansive view of what it means to do economic development and consider all of the factors that make economic development efforts successful,” Toland said.
While Toland is currently serving as the lieutenant governor of Kansas, he has also retained his position as the state secretary of commerce but said the issues noted during the tour are a concern in both roles.
“The lieutenant governor role has melded nicely with what I was already doing at commerce and continue to,” he said.
He also heads the governor's efforts in the Office of Rural Prosperity, a focus of the Kelly administration.
But the effect of the housing and labor shortages, Toland said, has negatively impacted the Kansas economy.
Overall, he said it has been growing over the last decade, but that growth lags behind other states because of those concerns.
“So that’s what we are trying to change,” Toland said. “We are trying to accelerate the growth and make sure we have growth, not just in the metro areas, but throughout all parts of the state, ultimately that is why I am here.”
Meanwhile, Williams said he was generally impressed with development in Hays.
“The lieutenant governor was impressed with what we have going on in Hays, and he had a lot of positive things to say about Hays, which is great," he said. "It’s always good to hear that from somebody outside the area."