PITTSBURG — The group Leadership Kansas brought about 40 of its members from a wide range of industries around the state to Pittsburg Thursday, where they visited the Kansas Technology Center at Pittsburg State University and Block22 and for a variety of speaker panels and presentations, including an appearance by Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland.

Secretary Toland also stopped by the Morning Sun’s office during his visit to Pittsburg to discuss some of his department’s current projects and priorities.

“We have over 100 active economic development projects that we’re working right now across the state, and some of those are expansions of existing businesses and some of those are recruitments of businesses that are outside of the state that we want to locate here,” Toland said.

“But what’s equally important is that right now we have an effort that will actually start next month to build a new economic development strategic plan for the state, and the last time this was done was 1986.”

Toland also discussed commercial development in Southeast Kansas, including in Pittsburg.

“The two main hubs of innovation in Southeast kansas are Pittsburg and Allen County,” he said.

In Pittsburg, Toland said, Block22 in particular provides an example other Kansas communities could follow.

“The reason Block22 is such a great model is that it combines housing, which addresses a college need, it has city involvement, it has private developer involvement, you have retail, you have Root Coffeehouse in there, you have the Foundry, which is a place for folks who may not yet be ready to set up in a storefront but who have a great idea and need some help getting it to the point where one day they will be in that storefront, you’ve got that service available,” Toland said. “So it is truly a model, Block22 is a model that I think can be replicated in other communities across the state.”

Toland said among questions and comments from the audience at the Leadership Kansas event he attended at Block22, one that was interesting was from someone from Russell who thanked Gov. Laura Kelly and her administration for offering incentives for a business that is starting up in Russell that has the potential to hire several hundred people and will be making harvesting equipment for industrial hemp.

“Industrial hemp is a new crop, this is the first year it’s been in Kansas, and it is typically harvested with chainsaws because it’s such a strong plant, you can’t just go out and cut it with regular machinery,” Toland said. “So this company, Mechanized Concepts Kansas, makes commercial, you know, large-scale harvesting equipment to get the hemp out of the field. And so this is a new manufacturing opportunity in a town of 5,000 in the middle of the state, and it’s a great opportunity not only for that town but for our state as a whole.”

Leadership Kansas, an affiliate program of the Kansas Chamber, “is a statewide program that was designed to enhance and motivate future leaders from various Kansas communities,” according to its website. “It is one of the oldest and most prestigious statewide leadership programs in the country.”

Earlier on Thursday, Block22 hosted a Leadership Kansas speaker panel titled “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” featuring Bob Brock, director of aviation with the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT), Kansas Turnpike Authority CEO Steve Hewitt, and Rick Baden, president and CFO for Pittsburg-based Watco Companies, LLC.

Brock noted that in addition to being KDOT’s aviation director, he is also the department’s director of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — also known as drones — and as such he is the first drone director for a state transportation agency in the country.

“Kansas did that, thank you to our legislators, to say let’s go beyond a bit and lead instead of follow some other state,” Brock said. “That industry right now is going to reach $13.8 billion between now and 2025.”

He went on to describe some futuristic developments involving drones and aviation that may sound like something out of science fiction, but may also become a part of our everyday lives sooner than many expect.

These include “urban air mobility,” Brock said, which will be similar to using a service like Uber to call for a ride, but the vehicle that comes to pick you up will be a flying car.

While that may sound crazy, “there are over 100 manufacturers with prototypes now,” Brock said. “That’s here.”

Other futuristic technologies Brock discussed included commercial uses for supersonic flight.

Hewitt, meanwhile, discussed recent developments at his agency, which maintains the I-35 Kansas Turnpike route running from the Oklahoma border through Wichita to Kansas City.

“This last year we had 40 million travelers on the Kansas Turnpike,” Hewitt said. “Believe it or not that I-35 corridor from Oklahoma to Kansas City brings in a lot of traffic, and believe it or not 60 percent of that is from out of state.”

All of that traffic not only generates revenue through tolls to support the Kansas Turnpike itself, but drives a significant amount of commerce in the state. The panel’s third speaker, Watco president and CFO Baden, is also involved in the transportation industry and helping to drive Kansas’s economy, especially locally. Baden explained to the audience of Leadership Kansas members what Watco does.

“Basically what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to solve customers’ logistics and supply chain problems, when you put it into a nutshell that’s really what we do,” Baden said.

“We’re more than just shortlines, but shortline railroads — we have about 42 shortlines across the country — that’s our biggest segment,” he said. “In the recent years we’ve really grown in the terminal and port space.”

Ultimately, however, Baden said, taking care of customers and solving their problems is what drives everything Watco does and the places it expands its business into — which at this point includes locations spread throughout the world.

“We don’t say, you know, going forward that we have a strategic plan that we’re going to end up in Western Australia or we’re going to end up on the East Coast somewhere,” Baden said. “That happens because our customers take us there.”