Rural towns falling behind in population growth

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Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series continued from the Friday, Sept. 9 issue of the Collegian. This story was produced as a class assignment for the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

Reversing the declining population trends in rural Kansas is a challenging proposition. But Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration is making an attempt.

The administration supported and won passage of a bill that provides economic incentives for relocating to select counties in Kansas. Those 50 rural counties have been designated as rural opportunity zones. The plan went into effect on July 1 and has two distinct approaches.

A person living outside of Kansas with a Kansas-based income of less than $10,000 for at least five years can waive state income taxes from 2012-2016 after relocating to a rural opportunity zone.

College graduates can have a portion of their student loan debts repaid for relocating to a rural opportunity zone. Beginning in 2012, graduates can have up to $3,000 of their student loan debt repaid yearly for up to five years. The $15,000 would be split between the state and the county. Both offers expire in 2016.

Jeannine Koranda, public information officer for the Kansas Department of Revenue, calls the incentives “another tool in the basket” for facilitating population growth.

“This is a way of ensuring that success is spread around the state,” she said. “Our rural communities are important and we want them to succeed. To do that, people have to be living there.”

To Kulcsar, quality of life is more important in attracting or maintaining a population.

“It is easier to keep people there rather than attracting new people,” Kulcsar said. “The key is building local capacity. Give the localities resources to figure out what their image is. Some may be able to come up with something to attract people.”

Bill Foster is emblematic of the struggles rural communities are facing in attracting new residents. The K-State junior and architectural engineering major is a native of Leawood, Kan. Even with student loan debt relief, he does not believe he would move to a rural area.

“I’m from a more populated area,” he said. “I have just really enjoyed it. Living in a big city is more interesting than living in a not as populated area.”

The reverse is proving true for York. He currently works in Washington, D.C. as staff assistant and intern coordinator for U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran. Despite his earlier attitudes regarding Ashland, Kan., York has not ruled out a return to his hometown when the time is right.

“I would love to come back home and settle because Ashland is a great place to live and raise a family,” he said. “It’s certainly less stressful, less cramped and slower-paced than Washington, D.C.”

The lack of consensus about appropriate fixes demonstrates the struggle legislators face in setting policy.

“These are not going to be overnight fixes,” said Kulcsar. “You just cannot do that. You put some policy in place and you don’t see results for three years.”

A tale of two cities: Manhattan and Dighton

The geographic and economic contrasts in Kansas have never been more distinct.

Venture east toward the Missouri border and the number of people increases. Likewise, the presence of economic development increases with each mile along Interstates 70 and 35. Green space might progressively vanish, but it seems to be of little concern to most people.

Head west into the heart of agricultural country and visibility increases for miles. Farmers tend vast tracts of land with an occasional house supplementing the barren landscape. For many western Kansas communities, growth is a foreign concept. Economic development is seemingly non-existent.

Dighton and Manhattan fit the respective molds established by their geographic locations. As a result, each community is facing a variety of different issues. Will Manhattan continue to exhibit strong growth trends? Will Dighton reverse declining population numbers and bring new businesses to the community? Only time will tell.

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