PITTSBURG, Kan. — As Americans nationwide continue to navigate through the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, locally, government officials and leaders of the business community are looking for ways to get back on track toward meeting the economic growth goals they’d been aiming for before they were derailed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Dr. Michael Davidsson, director of Pittsburg State University’s Business and Economic Research Center, gave an update on the regional economy at this week’s Pittsburg City Commission meeting, discussing issues that he and various city officials have long stressed as important priorities, such as attracting some of the city’s higher income commuters to move to Pittsburg, improving the ratings of the city’s public schools, and developing a workforce that is better qualified for jobs available locally.

In many areas, Davidsson said, Pittsburg continues to do well economically. He presented data showing that between 2010 and 2019, the city saw significantly higher growth in the number of middle-income households — 9.5 percent — than that seen state and nationwide, where there was 1.4 percent and 3.4 percent growth respectively.

Pittsburg has a revitalized downtown with more than 40 specialty stores and bars, Davidsson said, “which is very important because when a prospective employer goes to a city the first thing they do is go downtown and if it is dilapidated or dead, they run for the hills.”

Based on these measures and several others, he said, the city is on a great foundation for further economic growth.

“I believe it was on the cusp of taking off at the end of 2019, early 2020,” Davidsson said. “Then we had Covid, and I just hope that we’re going to land on our feet.”

Davidsson and various city officials have said that if Pittsburg is going to see economic and population growth, it needs to improve the availability of high-quality housing for a wide range of income levels. Davidsson noted in his presentation this week that according to a 2016 survey, more than 70 percent of employees of Pittsburg’s largest employers were living outside of the city.

Building new homes to appeal to higher income earners who currently commute to Pittsburg to get them to spend money and pay property taxes in the community would certainly benefit the local economy, Davidsson said. He added, however, that “the number one economic development concern” for Pittsburg is its public schools, which are not rated favorably by independent school rating organizations such as GreatSchools.org.

Pittsburg Community Schools Assistant Superintendent Brad Hanson was also at the commission meeting, and addressed the issue of Pittsburg’s schools’ mediocre ratings, saying that they did not reflect the challenges and successes the district has had considering how many of its students are living in poverty.

“So GreatSchools is not going to go away unless test scores go away,” Hanson said. “So what we’ve got to do as a city is we’ve got to promote what we do well.”

One problem for the local economy, City Manager Daron Hall said, is that wages have not been high enough to attract a more skilled workforce, although wages have been improving recently and city leaders are working to bring better paying jobs to Pittsburg.

Between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020, Davidsson noted in his presentation, the number of goods-producing, non-farm jobs in Crawford County — which are mostly manufacturing jobs — increased by more than 10 percent. A recent survey of local employers also found that more than 60 percent expected to increase their workforce in the next year or two.

Local job training opportunities such as those provided by the Southeast Kansas Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC) have also been helping to develop a more skilled workforce, Hall said.

“A lot of people may not feel that they can raise a family on, you know, pizza delivery,” Hall said. “That’s not the job we’re trying to create. We love all the pizza places, but we’re trying to create these manufacturing jobs too, because those are the ones where you don’t necessarily need the four-year degree but you can get the manufacturing skills at CTEC, and so that’s where CTEC came from, so it’s a big puzzle piece, it’s coming together.”

Commissioner Patrick O’Bryan said he had recently visited CTEC several times.

“It’s amazing to see the number of young people out there learning these new skills," he said, which are “certainly going to qualify them to fill some of these positions that are necessary.”

However, Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Blake Benson said that while the local workforce may be making significant improvements in “hard skills” there is also a need for prospective employees to improve their “soft skills.”

“I think a lot of our businesses will tell you that they can teach people how to do what they need them to do,” Benson said, “but we still have a ways to go in terms of turning out a workforce that shows up on time, that is dependable, so we’re trying to work on both those fronts.”

In response to a question from Commissioner Cheryl Brooks, Davidsson said that based on survey data he’d seen he did not think lower property taxes across the state line in Missouri were a major factor keeping prospective homeowners from buying houses in Pittsburg. Hall similarly said that a 2016 study showed that when considering all the costs involved, it would be much less expensive to live in Pittsburg and pay higher property taxes than to commute from further away.

“That study also dealt with the fact of the value of your time that’s spent on the road and away from your family,” O’Bryan said. “It showed what that was worth to these commuters.”

Davidsson noted in his presentation that more than half of commuters surveyed in 2016 cited local housing issues as a major reason for living outside of Pittsburg. Hall also acknowledged, however, that it is hard to predict what specific factors might most influence commuters’ individual decisions when considering buying a home in town.

“There’s a lot of moving parts,” he said.