How things are done in Manhattan, Kansas is evolving. The change isn’t new or sudden and it’s not limited to Manhattan. Instead, it’s a reflection of larger demographic changes in our nation, and it takes many forms. We catch glimpses of it at work, in the coffee shop line, and when we hear new voices joining the public dialogue. With the profound impact of this change on our regional economy, it’s surprising to think that Lyle Butler is one of the few people officially responsible for managing economic changes in Manhattan. And he’s retiring.
When Lyle Butler took the job as president/CEO of the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce a generation ago, the voices dominating public discourse were predictable, and the systems they represented were delineated by easily understood lines.
The County Commission graded the country roads, the City Commission paved the streets in town, and the school board led our kids down the learning path. The non-profit sector stayed in its do-gooder lane, the churches kept our souls on the straight and narrow, K-State churned out engineers and agricultural industry professionals, and we all learned to accept the window-rattling explosions from the western horizon as the price we pay for having the best trained army on the planet.
That’s the way it was when Butler got here in 2000. Not so much, as he departs.
“What has changed is that the younger age groups now begin to say, ‘So, I would like to live in Florida, or I would like to live in Colorado, and I’ll move there and get a job there because I like whatever those aspects of quality of place are.’ That’s what started changing it.”
Butler arrived in Manhattan with a resume burnished by that late 20th century chamber work in Greeley, Colorado and Dodge City, Kansas.
“When I talk to people in my age group, baby boomers, and they think about their own children, now, in some cases, grandchildren, they tell me, ‘Lyle, my kids made a decision on where they wanted to live and then they got a job there.’ Today it’s clear that the notion of quality of life has merged with quality of place, but that trend wasn’t always so clear. As Butler reflects on his 18 years as the Manhattan Chamber president, he sees how he has bent the system, not toward his will, but so that it reflected the community dynamics that were active and alive on the ground in Manhattan.
Kristin Brighton, a principal with local marketing firm New Boston Creative Group, who spent a year volunteering as chamber board president and who wrote The Post-Boomer Chamber: Attracting Gen X and Millennial Leaders, describes Butler as a mentor and “pseudo-father figure.” Not only was Brighton younger than Butler, they approached problems in a distinct way. “I’m an idea person. More than once I’ve gone to Lyle with a crazy idea, and he’s helped guide me on the path to fruition.”
“During the year I was chair of the chamber board, I asked our board to rethink several parts of the status quo to make parts of our chamber structure more effective, a process that continued into the effort that became the Greater Manhattan Project. Never did Lyle seem threatened by our executive board questioning parts of the organization; he embraced our desire to assess what was working and what wasn’t working, and supported initiatives to explore other options to make things better.”
During Lyle’s tenure, chambers of commerce across the country became the indispensable institution to effectively move ideas and agendas in local governments. They have simply become the only system in many communities with the infrastructure, relationships, influence, and in Manhattan’s case, the human resource talent.
Reflecting on those developments, Butler says, “I’ve thought a lot about that, and it’s probably more stark today than it was, but the reality is the chamber is somewhat of a default. Chambers have become that one organization in many communities across America where, what I call the ‘good’ chambers, the progressive chambers, have realized they can bring a diverse group of people together to talk about community issues and how to improve the quality of our place.”
Butler’s retirement comes in the middle of a full chamber agenda and a community working through change and adaptation challenges, not the least of which is an evolving perception of what chamber work actually entails.
Traditionally, the business community is comprised of bottom-line driven people, such as retailers, service providers, and manufacturers who get up every morning thinking of ways to ensure the jottings at the bottom of the ledger are of higher numeric value than the corresponding figure of the previous quarter.
Under the old model, the businesses whose dues pay the chamber freight saw their chamber as a vehicle to help them do just that. They’d say, “Go lobby the legislature for lower taxes and less regulation. Keep a check on the school board for Cadillac-bond issues. You have one job. Do it.” It turns out 21st century chambers of commerce have more than one job. Many more.
In Manhattan, there’s a shopping mall struggling to find a purpose in a 21st century one-click shopping dynamic. There’s a growing trend toward regionalism, punctuated by the need to engage neighbors in Junction City and Wamego and Pottawatomie and Clay counties, so that the Flint Hills can become an enviable regional economy. There’s downtown development, neighborhood revitalization, an evolving Aggieville, and on and on.
While it would have been easy for Butler to succeed by managing a day-to-day dated chamber of commerce, Brighton says Butler tended to lean into more proactive collaborations. He became the driving and creative force in Manhattan to think big while focusing on the details.
“Through my time on the executive board, our leadership team championed Lyle’s suggestion to start an interregional visit program, and we chose to hire Market Street Services to conduct the Greater Manhattan Project, which lead to Region Reimagined. These last two actions have had lasting impact on the community and will help to extend Lyle’s legacy into future generations.”
As Manhattan’s city manager, Ron Fehr understands how the framing of local issues helps others focus on what’s important. Viewed from that perspective, Butler excelled, particularly, he says, when it came to economic development and tourism. During Butler’s tenure, the chamber began the Advantage Manhattan program, which provides private industry support for economic development. In 2016, the most recent campaign raised more than $3.3 million.
“He helped guide the chamber to successful internal fundraising efforts to better the chamber and the community. This fundraising by the business community illustrated that the chamber was willing to lead and also invest their funds in targeted improvement areas yielding a valued partner.”
Great at the day-to-day, Butler is also known for his wherewithal to recognize and understand changes on the horizon. This combination allowed Butler to bring enough capacity to wait for the community to catch up and for the city’s demographics to change just enough so that new voices were taken seriously.
“Manhattan’s been very successful because we’ve had good visionary leaders. But it’s hard sometimes to stop and say, ‘Wait just a minute. What do we want to be like in five years?’” Butler explained. “The good news is that process is in play with Region Reimagined, a community-wide vision that’s still ongoing, but that has a vision and goals that aren’t just chamber goals. And so as I leave, I’m excited about that possibility and wish I could be part of that. And maybe I can be, on the outside, instead of being directly on the inside.”
Fehr says that Butler’s departure will certainly leave a gap in his professional network. “He is a good sounding board for me and also someone I can confide in,” Fehr says, “I will miss his conversation and discussion about important items facing the community and approaches/solutions in tackling them.”
An effective chamber executive is a politician, salesperson, and cheerleader with skills to employ those characteristics in a non-threatening manner that moves the needle. Brighton said that Butler “will leave big shoes to fill.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him have a bad day. He’s always upbeat, optimistic, and willing to consider new ideas and ways of thinking, and see how those ideas could benefit Manhattan. Lyle’s also always excellent at thanking people for coming out in support of the chamber or community, making volunteers feel gratitude for giving of their time or other resources.”
Thankfully, Butler’s not going far. He helped lead and design quality of place in his career, and he and his wife have found it for themselves in Manhattan.
“People say, ‘Aren’t you excited about retirement?’ and I go, ‘Yeah, but I don’t fish, and I don’t golf.’ My life has been community development and making a place a great place. When people say, ‘I just love living here and they start listing the amenities, then I can say, ‘Wow, we’ve done some good things.’”
Mike Matson is the director of industry affairs and development at Kansas Farm Bureau. He is the author of Spifflicated: A Family Memoir. You can find his other writing at MikeMatson.com.