The conversation started with a seemingly simple question: What do you – legislators, mayors, economic development officials – need to get jobs for your area?

The conversation started with a seemingly simple question: What do you – legislators, mayors, economic development officials – need to get jobs for your area?

The ideas flowed at a gathering Friday of dozens of officials, and state Rep. Jeanie Lauer, R-Blue Springs, promised there would be more meetings about fine-tuning – or overhauling – state and local incentives.

“We’re not going to end up with one magic fix here today. The idea is to get the ideas down,” she said.

The group included the mayors of Independence, Blue Springs, Lee’s Summit and Raytown, five state legislators, the deputy director of the Missouri Department of Economic Development, officials of local economic development councils, officials of Jackson County and others. Among the dozens of ideas tossed out, several themes emerged:

It’s as important to retain jobs as to attract them, so state incentives should be focused on that. State legislators are looking at that in a special session next month, but the program as envisioned now would apply to larger companies, leaving out most employers.

Start-ups often are begun by people who are good at whatever their product is – making cupcakes, perfecting widgets – but not at the nuts and bolts of permits, payrolls and keeping the books. Getting your arms around all of the government rules and regulations is daunting.

“How do you hand-hold them through the process?” asked Raytown Mayor David Bower.

Lee’s Summit Mayor Randy Rhoads put it this way. Cities and economic development agencies deal with this every day, but an individual might start a business once or twice in a lifetime. “And it’s an intimidating process,” he said.

Businesses often don’t know where to go for help, and most owners are unaware of programs available to help them start or expand.

“When a start-up comes in, do they talk to the chamber (of commerce)? Do they talk to the city? Do they talk to the EDC?” said Tom Lesnak, president of the Independence EDC.

Cities lose established businesses because there are so many in each community and development officials often don’t get word of a move until it’s too late. They lose opportunities because prospective companies have to jump through too many hoops.

“Time kills deals,” said Ann Smith-Tate, economic development manager for the city of Independence.

Others echoed that idea and said government approval processes need to be faster and easier to understand, with fewer bureaucratic gotchas.

“We may have to be more flexible than we have in the past,” Rhoads said.

Smith-Tate generally agreed but also reminded the group that cities have reasons for zoning, building permits, rules on signs and other things. They cannot arbitrarily wave through today’s project just because a developer is in a rush or the city will end up with problems that it has to fix later.

“Long term, we need to be protecting the integrity of our community,” she said.

Many seemed to agree.

“There is a balance between compliance and customer service,” Lauer said.

Small businesses critically need seed capital – in the form of loans and grants – but also need less red tape.

“Seed capital is huge,” Lesnak said. Most of what’s out there is from venture capitalists, and much of that has dried up. Grants often come with so many conditions that startups don’t bother.

It’s not just startups. Established companies need working capital and that’s tough right now because the overall economy is uncertain, making it hard to establish and price risk, the underlying math of any loan.

That was another dominant theme, consensus that the overall uncertainty in the national economy weighs down on everything they’re trying to do.

Lauer said when she asks local businesses if they would be inclined to expand, if they had the money, the answer is often no because they want to save for a rainy day or because the economy is too uncertain and government and others make it too much of a hassle.

“Creating employment is a huge risk for people,” said Brien Starner, president of the Blue Springs EDC.

Lauer repeatedly pressed the group for specifics, gently and often humorously but persistently pushing to flesh out ideas and be specific.

“You can’t just nod,” she chided. “You have to, like, speak.”

In the end, there were some ideas to carry forward:

Starner strongly suggested that the state look carefully at anything – any rule, regulation or program – that potentially raises costs for businesses.

Lesnak discussed the need for attention to the area around Truman Road and Interstate 435, pointing to the demographic struggles of that area. “That’s really the area we need to redevelop,” he said.

Legislators should get away from bills written to benefit one specific area of the state and instead take a statewide view and stop addressing the big issues with piecemeal solutions.

Lauer, who is working with Jackson County Economic Development Coordinator Robbie Makinen, is tallying the ideas and plans a task force to continue working on these issues.

“This is more than this one meeting,” Lauer said. “There will be a progression.”