byBekah Porter

MARION – The last thing George Lake wants to point at with pride is a bean field.

“I don’t want to take potential business owners on a car ride and say, ‘Look at this field. You can start building your business here in a year or two,’” he said.

Instead, the president of the Marion Economic Development Co. (MEDCO) envisions giving prospective clients a tour of a business park that boasts in-place infrastructure.

“I don’t want to show them just a farm field in Bill’s Pretty Good Industrial Park,” Mr. Lake said. “I want to show them something that has everything in place with not a corn or bean plant on the place.”

In these past few weeks, Mr. Lake and the city of Marion have taken gigantic steps toward accomplishing that goal.

Environment for growth’

On July 21, MEDCO and the city hosted a groundbreaking ceremony for the Marion Enterprise Center west of 62nd Street, just off of North Gateway Drive.

Dozens of people gathered to watch the 184-acre business park’s first moments of life.

“What people are witnessing now in Marion is a unique approach to business,” Mr. Lake said. “What we’re doing is creating an environment for growth.”

MEDCO purchased the property — which is zoned for planned development — for $15,000 an acre last year in an effort to provide existing Marion businesses an opportunity to expand and to offer a more attractive climate for prospective companies.

“Growth doesn’t occur by happenstance,” Mr. Lake said. “You can’t expect a tulip to grow in a desert, and you can’t expect businesses to grow in an area not hospitable to them.”

For this reason, MEDCO and the city partnered to purchase the business park and to invest an estimated $4 million of tax increment financing (TIF) to provide water, sewer systems and roads so businesses can start constructing their buildings in a matter of weeks instead of the usual several-year timeline.

Additionally, the city will spend about $1.4 million on the 110-acre privately owned industrial park known as Marion Industrial Center East.

Because of this aggressive approach to providing instant satisfaction to companies, some 350 acres of shovel-ready industrial ground will be ready by the end of July 2011.

‘We’re competitive now’

Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn says the city needs growth more than ever — but only in certain areas.

“One of the things that Marion has not been as successful in is growing our commercial and industrial base,” he said. “We’ve added a lot of people and houses in the last 20 years, but we’ve not added what I consider to be the same or expected proportion of business and employer growth that would normally follow, and as a result, our tax base has shifted.”

With an estimated 30 percent population growth, the town has gone from what Mr. Pluckhahn deems a “healthy” ratio of 60 percent of taxes being resident and 40 percent being industrial or commercial to a less-than-ideal ratio. As of now, less than 20 percent of the city’s tax base is industrial or commercial. The remaining 80 percent comes from residential properties.

“If you become overly dependent on any one source of revenue, then you really set yourself up for problems,” Mr. Pluckhahn said. “Marion avoided the bottom sweeping out of the housing market, but if it all of sudden was devalued by 20 percent, then that’s a huge hit to my tax base.”

He expects the industrial park and the business park to help even out that gap.

“I’m expecting a high level of success,” Mr. Pluckhahn said. “I think both of them will be ready at the right time, as we’re already starting to see economic recovery, and (the parks) have been fielding a number of requests for information.”

Already, four businesses have shown interest in coming to the Marion Industrial Center East, which will be ready this fall, and “a lot more” have shown interest in the Marion Enterprise Center, which will be complete by July 2011.

While many local businesses have talked about relocating in the parks, Mr. Pluckhahn said he expects to attract new businesses as well, especially since MEDCO has hopes for Highway 151 access at the Marion Enterprise Center.

“We’re actually now competitive in a whole host of industrial and commercial recruitments that we wouldn’t have even been able to submit (recruitment and informational packets) to before,” he said.

‘No fault of their own’

Creating an atmosphere for growth is especially important to Marion for reasons beyond recruiting new contributors to the tax base. According to MEDCO and city officials, the parks provide a much-needed area for several downtown businesses to relocate.

About eight industrial companies operate smack in the middle of Marion’s downtown in an area referred to as brownfield, although economic and city officials say it should really be used for commercial and retail companies.

“It’s no fault of their own,” Mr. Pluckhahn said. “What happened was that they built on the edges of Marion, like they were supposed to, and then the city grew and grew around them.”

But the situation needs to change, he said, both for the city’s and companies’ sakes.

“What we’ve found in talking with some of those companies is that their locations don’t work out really well for them,” Mr. Pluckhahn said. “They have to send their trucks through a lot of traffic lights, and they couldn’t expand if they wanted to because they’re completely surrounded. There really isn’t room for them to do anything beyond exactly what it is they’re doing now. And they realize the ground they are sitting on is prime for redevelopment.”

While the city wants the businesses to relocate, it does not want them to change their zip codes.

“They’re viable businesses that we want to stay in Marion,” said Jill Ackerman, president of the Marion Chamber. “We want to keep them, because for years they’ve contributed to our tax base and made Marion what it is. We just want to put them in a place where they’ll be more successful. Our focus is on existing businesses and industries, whether they’re brownfield or not, and we want to have a place for them to grow and thrive.”

Mr. Lake said several of these businesses — which consist of iron mills, salvage yards, used car lots and more — have expressed interest in relocating to one of the two parks, and he said forced relocation is not an option at this time. Instead, he said MEDCO and the city could work to provide an incentive plan for a move.

Mr. Pluckhahn said the city would be open to hearing from individual companies about what would make it “cost-effective for them to relocate.”

“The ideal situation is for them to work out a lot of things in the private sector and then contact us about what we can do,” he said. “We want to make this a win-win for both them and the community.” CBJ

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