CloudCorp director explains ‘connecting the dots’

January 12, 2016 by

CloudCorp executive director Ashley Hutchinson answers questions during Tuesday's Community Needs Forum working lunch at the Nazareth Motherhouse.

CloudCorp executive director Ashley Hutchinson answers questions during Tuesday’s Community Needs Forum working lunch at the Nazareth Motherhouse.

On the subject of jobs, CloudCorp executive director wants to make one thing perfectly clear: “We don’t create jobs,” the Jamestown native explained Tuesday. “We’re the ones who connect the dots.”

That means that while the mission of her job and CloudCorp as a whole is economic development in the Concordia area, the method is by gathering information and continuing to learn about the community.

That was Hutchinson’s message at the 31st meeting of the Community Needs Forum, hosted by the Sisters of St. Joseph. There were about 35 community members in attendance, including many who had been at an October lunch meeting where the need for more local jobs was proposed as a major challenge facing the area.

So Hutchinson was invited to explain the strategy of CloudCorp, the primary economic development agency in Cloud County, which is funded by the city of Concordia and Cloud County, plus businesses, individuals and five smaller communities.

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When she took the job four years ago, Hutchinson recalled, economic development experts in Kansas City and other urban areas told her that her focus needed to be on industry — on attracting large manufacturing companies to Concordia and Cloud County. But she soon discovered that “rural economic development is different.”

The “big three things” central to economic development in an area like Cloud County, she said, are community development, small business development and business retention and expansion.

Rural areas can’t compete with urban centers that have more money, more people and lower transportation costs, she added.

Instead, the focus in small cities like Concordia has to be a “bottom-up approach that builds on existing assets.”

Those assets include a low cost of living, compared to other areas in the state, and a high quality of life based on cooperative spirit, cultural strengths, strong service organizations and both a community college and a hospital.

“If Cloud County Health Center goes away, my job becomes very difficult,” she noted.

The assets also include recognizing and building on “industry clusters” already located in the Cloud County area. One example of such an industry cluster is fabrication, with businesses such as Avros-Group, Gerard Tank & Steel Inc., Henry Enterprises Inc. and MAC Fabricating, among others, already here.

“We can also look at single businesses — like Scott Specialties and the wind farm — and see if there is room for growth with other business in the same industries,” she explained.

She said Cloud County has a very low unemployment rate — between 2.8 and 3 percent for 2015 — but a high rate of underemployment, meaning workers can’t find full-time jobs or jobs equal to their skills and experience.

One development designed specifically to encourage local business development is the “Get in the Cloud” grant program, which has so far given grants to 14 small business owners.

“This is one way to help remove the barrier to getting capital for a start-up business,” Hutchinson explained. “It’s a way to root for the home team.”

And “rooting for the home team” is an important part of economic development in rural areas, she added.

When asked “What can we do?” she had a ready, three-part answer:

• Brag more.
• Complain less.
• Help connect the dots.

She encouraged those in attendance to “brag” through social media, by sharing and liking positive stories on Facebook and elsewhere. And, she added, “You can come complain to me; I’ll listen. But don’t complain to strangers, or to your kids.”

Lastly, she said she is always listening for more information about people interested in starting a business, businesses that are thinking about expanding, owners who think they may want to close and even Concordians now living elsewhere who would like to return to their hometown.

“That’s all about connecting the dots, and you can help.”

Also at Tuesday’s gathering, Neighborhood Initiatives director Kathleen Norman discussed a “skills survey” that will be included in city of Concordia water bills later this month.

Neighborhood Initiatives is an office of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia.

Norman has designed the simple survey to help assess what basic job skills are most needed by people seeking jobs, or better jobs, in the Concordia area.

On the heels of the survey, Neighborhood Initiatives will begin offering a basic sewing class toward the end of February. In a partnership with the Cloud County Resource Center and the Concordia School District, the sewing class will be designed to give participants basic sewing skills that could be used in a commercial sewing company.

More information will be available after the survey results are tallied, Norman said.

The Community Needs Forum grew out of informal meetings between the Sisters of St. Joseph and community leaders in the fall of 2008. The first working lunch was held in January 2009, and the continuing gatherings have identified what participants see as the greatest needs in the community and have established smaller groups to seek solutions. The working lunches — with the next one scheduled for April 8 — continue to provide an opportunity for updates on projects and a clearinghouse for new ideas. If you’d like to be on the emailing list for reminders about upcoming sessions, contact Sister Jean Rosemarynoski at 785/243-2149 or sisterjean@csjkansas.org.

 

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