Rural communities improved upon in hopes of growth attraction

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Editor’s note: This is part three 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.

Dighton is a community of 1,038 according to the 2010 U.S. census and it is geographically closer to Denver than Kansas City. During the last 10 years, Dighton has lost more than 17 percent of its population. This trend can often be a death knell for rural communities, but Dighton’s mayor Rebecca Campbell said she will not be deterred.

“The city has used neighborhood revitalization grants to help improve and update homes in need of repairs,” Campbell said. “We also took part in a downtown revitalization project that replaced the sidewalks, light fixtures and pocket parks. The city and the county worked together to fund the economic development office, which has helped downtown businesses with storefront beautification.”

There has been a positive response to the grant program, Campbell said. In addition, three to four businesses have opened downtown. Lane County economic development director Dan Hartman said in an April 1 Hutchinson News article that a family of young entrepreneurs opened several of those businesses. They chose to move to Dighton because of the community’s smaller schools and to return to their former hometown.

But, will it be enough?

Twenty five miles separate Scott City and Dighton, but the differences between the two towns are stark.

Marshall Anliker, sophomore in pre-professional construction science and management, is a Scott City native. He frequently drives through Dighton on trips home and has observed changes in the community.

“They’ve remodeled their downtown, so it’s a nice looking town,” he said. “But, you can tell it is struggling a little bit.”

Many Dighton students are choosing to attend high school in Scott City or Ness City, both 25 miles away from Dighton, Anliker said. Growth in Scott City will only complicate Dighton’s struggles with population.

“This (growth in Scott City) is bringing in more jobs and more people and making my hometown more attractive for other people to come in to,” he said.

The trends in Manhattan are quite the opposite.

During the last 10 years, Manhattan’s population has increased by more than 16 percent according to U.S. census data.

Even greater, Manhattan’s population eclipsed 50,000, which enables the city to become eligible for more federal funding for services such as transportation, housing and community development. A fixed route bus system is planned to be the first product of the additional funding.

“That’s huge,” said John Pagen, vice president for economic development at the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce. “Every nose counts.”

Manhattan city and Chamber of Commerce officials have a variety of initiatives to bring businesses to the community, including the downtown redevelopment project that has recently added a Dick’s Sporting Goods and several restaurants.

The Chamber of Commerce has also been marketing Manhattan as a retirement location for K-State alumni and local businesses are not neglected in these considerations.

“We have economic development incentives available to assist new and existing businesses to grow and add jobs,” said Bruce Snead, former mayor of Manhattan.

These efforts have influenced several major projects. The National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility was awarded to Manhattan in 2007 and is scheduled to open in 2018. Pagen estimates Manhattan’s population will increase by six to eight thousand as a result. Further development downtown and additions at Fort Riley could also positively impact the area. The effects from Fort Riley, though, are nothing new.

“This has been the most significant influence in our growth over the last 10 years,” Snead said.

The first quarter of 2011 was Manhattan’s best in economic history according to Pagen.

“You want people spending money in your town,” Pagen said. “It’s huge.”

The issue of population in rural Kansas remains important to many Kansans because of the state’s longstanding rural identity, Kulcsar said.

“Kansas has been rural for many, many years,” he said. “So it’s been built into the local culture. People who grew up in Kansas probably appreciate rurality a little more than other parts of the country.”

Though urbanization will likely continue unabated, Kulcsar believes some will remain in rural areas.

“The European example shows us that they are actually ahead of the U.S. in urbanization and they got to the point where living in the rural area is a preference,” he said. “People still want to live in the rural areas and in places that look like a small town or have a neighborhood feeling. It can go back and forth.”

Governmental and business measures are having an effect though. York has visited several Kansas communities on behalf of Sen. Moran’s office to lend support and outreach. He also has seen more “qualified” classmates and friends from high school returning to Ashland in an effort to help improve the community.

“That’s the future of Ashland,” he said.

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