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  • Last modified 105 days ago (July 8, 2021)

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Awash in
a financial drought

If you ever need an inspiring story of people coming together to recover from tragedy, look no further than the historic ’51 flood, the 70th anniversary of which we observe this week.

Devastating deluges left towns throughout eastern Kansas in ruins. Although modest amounts of disaster aid and loans were available, communities for the most part had to pull themselves up by their own soggy bootstraps.

With back-breaking labor and admirable willingness to devote resources needed to ensure a brighter future, Marion County baled itself out and became, if anything, an even better place. In decades after the flood, uncounted resources were dedicated not just to restoring but more important to enhancing the infrastructure of homes, businesses, and the community.

If a similar disaster were to strike now, 70 years later, would the same dedication to community and willingness to invest in its future allow us to rise like a phoenix, or would a modern equivalent of a ’51 flood drown our future in a downpour of despair?

Then vs. now, a key difference appears to be the availability of capital. In 1951, retirement “nest eggs” were likely to be commercial or industrial buildings and equipment that could be rented out or sold at reasonable prices to the next generation of community members.

Those who had assembled capital in 1951 were eager to put it to work within their community, creating solid returns on their investments while also creating jobs and opportunities for others eager to take over the mantle of community leadership.

Today, nest eggs rarely are local. Most are antiseptic brokerage accounts — mutual funds, stocks, bonds, annuities, and other faceless and soulless instruments that admittedly provide higher rates of return, but only in a financial sense. Money literally flows out of the community faster than the receding floodwaters of ’51.

Nowadays, a destroyed business almost certainly would find its insurance and government aid insufficient to allow it to reopen. Our business infrastructure is much like an old “beater” car. It still provides transportation but is of such diminished value that it couldn’t be replaced if lost.

As more and more of our financial institutions become minor branches of mega-corporations located outside our community, there’s no readily available lending pool for up-and-coming businesses to dip into if they hope to keep the economy growing.

Local businesses depend not on new investments but on investments made decades ago that could not or would not be made again in today’s economy. Worse yet, we seem to have accepted this situation rather than raging at the dying of the light for the region.

Entrepreneurial groups that originally were formed to provide seed money for new local businesses now seem focused not so much on funding development as they are on tending to creature comforts or societal safety nets. These are investments not in the future but in the here and now.

To the handful of readers who might be able to stem this tide, we encourage you to set aside at least a portion of your wealth to help fund those who want to develop or expand businesses in the community.

To the much larger group who might be able to tap into such money, we encourage you to accept not just their cash but also the moral obligation to give it your all — as survivors of the ’51 flood did — and throw yourself into your work without reservation. Accept responsibility for performing the hard work needed to make these investments pay off and avoid the siren song of concern about quality of life. Build our community for the future, not the here and now.

Thanks to a reservoir and a dike and levee — and to those individuals who put themselves on the line to push these projects through despite ample dissent within the community — we won’t have another ’51 flood.

We will, however, have something like it someday.

When we do, will all of us be able to say we’ve done everything we can to ensure our community’s ability to recover, or will we just join an ever-growing line of beggars, hands out, expecting others to fix things for us?

Stroll through downtown and look at the names of long-dead heroes carved atop buildings they built as investments in the future. Decades later, we remember them. Decades from now, will anyone remember us?

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 8, 2021

 

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