Signs of better times
Ask any resident what our county needs and you’ll hear please for better roads, lower taxes, more jobs, less crime, and an end to bickering.
Most of us think these problems affect only our county, but they’re pretty much the same anywhere in rural America.
One reason they stick around, here and elsewhere, is that we too often look for silver bullets that can solve entire problems at once. Seldom do we consider tiny pieces of solutions that can combine to make meaningful and welcome progress. Often, these are simple things never considered or never tried.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. A couple of recent drives to Wichita provided one idea.
Getting people to visit is a first step in economic development. It helps with tourism today and, if tourists are impressed, may attract residents and businesses tomorrow. The more affluent people and businesses we attract, the lower our crime and tax rates will be.
We can’t solve all those problems at once, of course, but we can make a start. We all know that first impressions are important. What we may not know is that we’re giving off a bad one.
Many people these days use GPS systems to get turn-by-turn directions to wherever they are going, particularly if they are unfamiliar with an area. Systems vary in their sophistication, but many tend to ignore undesignated county roads and send travelers only on officially designated routes.
Drive from Wichita to Marion, for example, and try to come up Sunflower Rd. with GPS directions turned on. Some cars’ systems might allow it, but on others, every 60 seconds or so you hear a nagging message: “Turn back where possible.” What a wonderful way to greet a potential visitor!
A simple step might be to designate certain county roads as county highways. Mark them that way on maps and install at key intersections standard highway signs featuring the highway’s letter or number inside a square.
Sunflower Rd. could become County S, Nighthawk Rd. could become County N, Indigo Rd. could become County I, etc.
Unfamiliar travelers would feel a lot more comfortable visiting Pilsen by following a GPS system’s instructions to turn on County R from US-56. Hearing the name County 290 might make a motorist more comfortable driving from Lincolnville to Durham.
We’d love it if these roads could be designated state highways. That also would help the county budget. But that’s a silver bullet we’ll never find — except, perhaps, for Remington Rd. from US-56 to Pilsen, which we should constantly insist, particularly in an election year, that our state legislators push for.
County officials undoubtedly would have to jump through a few bureaucratic hoops to label other hard-surfaced county roads as highways, but it would be well worth their time if we could create a better first impression at very little cost.
It also would encourage us to separately prioritize gravel roads and hard-surfaced roads, so we wouldn’t be tempted to siphon money from one to the other. That’s a win-win. And the cost is just a few signposts and some bureaucratic maneuvering.
— ERIC MEYER
Don’t just eat local
What other off-the-wall ideas could begin addressing some of our communities’ seemingly irresolvable problems?
Too often, we think of economic development in terms of persuading businesses to add locations in our communities.
That unfortunately tends to be a short-term solution. Every community in the nation — even communities in other nations — are trying to do exactly the same. The one that wins most often will be the one that sacrifices the most in terms of incentives. When incentives run out, so will be businesses they attracted.
Big businesses may air TV commercials claiming otherwise and toss a few dollars into supporting local events, but in truth they have no loyalty to communities in which they have branches. If you want a loyal business in your community, the best way is to grow it right here.
Business incubators and technical support help, but so too would a commitment from every other business and agency in the community to buy local.
Buying goods and services from businesses that aren’t locally owned and operated may save a few pennies, but the long-term cost is considerable.
Consider, for example, government services. Look at the amount of money we’re shipping out of the county for legal services.
Kansas has 28.33 practicing attorneys per 10,000 residents. Marion County has more than 10,000 residents but only two attorneys in private practice who live and have their offices in the county.
There’s plenty of legal business to create a good-paying opportunity to attract more lawyers — who presumably will buy homes, pay taxes, be great neighbors, support local businesses, and not be a burden on our social safety net.
But we seem insistent on sending such things as hospital debt collection to a firm halfway across the state, to hiring firms without attorneys who live in the county to serve as city attorneys and county counselors, and to contracting with distant firms to collect delinquent taxes.
Yes, some of those services might be less expensive and more highly specialized than what a local firm might provide, but the cost of doing business outside the county carries with it a penalty that needs to be accounted for and included in any calculation as to whether a low bid is, in fact, the low bid in the long term.
If we hadn’t insisted on always going with the lowest bidder, perhaps we wouldn’t have so few local lawyers. Perhaps we still would have local office supply stores if we hadn’t been penny-wise and pound foolish and tried to save minor amounts at the expense of not generating tax revenue in the long term.
Instead of sending municipal bills to be printed and mailed in Wichita, perhaps we could provide incentives for someone to set up a local business that would provide a similar service, keeping money we ship out of the county at home, where it can circulate and create more revenue for everyone, including government.
How long will it be before auto parts, one of the last remaining local services that government relies upon, are taken over by online and distant suppliers?
We no longer have a locally owned and based wrecker service even though, nationwide, there’s an average of one tow truck per 10,000 residents. There are tow trucks —located right on the edge of the county — that employ at least one truck operator from the county, but we don’t have our own tow company, which we could support by guaranteeing that we always use it.
Just providing local jobs isn’t enough. Look at all the chain stores sprouting up in the county. They employ local people, and once in a while they kick in to some fundraising campaign.
But the money they earn off selling us things is transferred immediately to out-of-county banks rather than remain available to fund inexpensive loans here. Instead of creating top-level jobs that inject not just money but also leadership into our community, they mainly employ workers at little more than minimum wages, who often pose increased demands on local social services.
Local businesses and government agencies need to adopt a strategy of always giving preference to locally owned and operated contractors and suppliers. If they don’t exist, they should consider offering incentives to form such businesses.
Just thinking about it — and always requiring a written explanation, available for every voter to see, as to why a locally owned business was not chosen would be a good start.
— ERIC MEYER
Breaking down walls
Here, in no particular order, are other ideas. It’s not an exclusive list. It isn’t even an agenda. It’s just a collection of ideas that hopefully will get everyone thinking creatively about what we can do:
Expanded homestead credits — Local governments love to talk about using home rule or changing state laws to allow unique action locally. How about giving a property tax discount and maybe even a sale tax discount to homeowners who live in their own homes and to businesses that are locally owned?
License fees for landlords — Nearly everyone arrested in the county lives in one of a growing handful of rental properties that often are substandard. One way to ensure that substandard properties are either fixed up or replaced would be to require absentee landlords with more than a minimum number of properties to pay a licensing fee for each such property. We then could use that money to hire inspectors to ensure that the properties remain in good enough condition so they won’t attract low-class criminal elements. And we could deny licenses to any property on which property taxes are not paid in full rather than allow them to fester in delinquency for years.
Meaningful student loan forgiveness — The county offers a program that will forgive student debt of recent graduates relocating here, but the waiting list is so long it no longer provides meaningful incentive. Expanding this program would ensure that we are attracting the right new residents — people who will make the community more productive and successful, not people who will increase the burden on already overloaded social safety nets and add to a work force that isn’t particularly skilled.
Offer regular entertainment and dining — One of the biggest lures for young people is the notion that there’s always something going on that they can enjoy. Big annual events are fine, but an unbroken progression of weekly events — and the ability to dine out more than just at lunch a few days a week — are crucial to attracting the type of population we need to become more economically viable. We need more community plays and concerts. We need to encourage and spread out school events that provide entertainment for more than just the relatives of students. We need to be able to say that, each and every weekend, there’s something going on in Marion County and that, at 7:30 any evening, there always will be places people can go for something more than guzzling beer.
These are just a few ideas, offered solely to encourage people to consider what might seem off-the-wall ideas that could help break down the walls that limit economic development. What are your ideas?
— ERIC MEYER