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The fight of our lives

Welcome to Marion — pop. 642. Welcome to Hillsboro — pop. 998. Welcome to Marion County — pop. 4,070.

Welcome to the year 2064.

A Wichita State University economic think tank recently said that’s where we’re headed as a county. In less than 50 years, county population will plummet by about 8,000.

We’ll be an older county, too, they say. One out of every three people here will be 70 years old or older, and there will be only about 500 school-age children — a fourth of what we now have. Young adults, the ones who get married, have babies, and hold down jobs, will have moved away in droves, drawn away by jobs and amenities in larger cities, and they’ll have taken their families with them.

Decline is happening now, as it has been for about 80 years. Instead of far-off 2064, what do the WSU experts have to say about 2024, just eight years from now?

We’ll be down about 2,000 people in 2024 from where we were in 2014. In 10 years we’ll have lost nearly 1,500 working-age people, and more than 600 school-age kids. That’s the equivalent of saying goodbye to everyone in Peabody, all of Hillsboro’s schoolkids, and assorted others.

People are easy to count. Where they are and where they’re going are easily measured. The cold, hard fact is that they’re not coming to Marion County, they’re going away.

The numbers could be off, but downward trend is well established and far-reaching. Two-thirds of Kansas counties, including Marion, peaked in population before 1930. Just three rural counties have increased population since 2000.

It’s time to take off the gloves and start clawing and scratching for every last little advantage we can scrape up if we’re going to buck the trend. Decisive local action can make a difference, if it’s not just “business as usual.”

Job No. 1 is create opportunities to keep our young adults and families here at home, or to come back. It’s easier to hold onto people with ties to the area than to attract those with none.

Randy Collett, Marion’s new economic development director, gets it. In a brief conversation Monday, there was a welcome sense of urgency in his voice as he said creating jobs and business opportunities to keep and attract young adults has to be a priority. We’re glad to hear it.

I’d much prefer to do away with Marion, Hillsboro, and county individual economic development positions and then pool resources to create an independent countywide economic development authority. Since that’s about as likely to happen as Gov. Brownback becoming a Democrat, there’s more pressure for the three entities to coordinate their efforts for maximum results.

Tourism should continue to be in the mix, but it’s not the fix to keep us afloat in the coming years. Banking on tourism as a cure would be like expecting a cough drop to cure a case of strep throat. Keeping the slide at bay begins by creating jobs that will keep people here.

The big elephant in the room, to no one’s surprise, is whether people believe the threat is serious enough to truly bury old rivalries and put self-interest aside to come together for a greater good. Recent rhetoric is encouraging; past track records are less so.

This threat doesn’t present like a tornado ripping through the county. Instead, it’s subtle, nebulous, and easy to deny. It’s been quietly gnawing away at us for eight decades. Folks have noticed, but attempts to thwart it have been isolated, haphazard, and ineffective.

We’ve reached a point where population decline of the kind WSU experts project could wreak havoc on our way of life. We cannot expect to lose nearly 4,000 people in the next 18 years without also losing businesses, schools, health care choices, churches, and without compromises in essential services.

County commissioners want to hear from county business leaders, and if you have a successful business, you qualify as a leader. Plan to attend a forum 7 p.m. Thursday at Marion Community Center to toss out ideas for what needs to happen to keep and grow business in the county.

Then hold your civic leaders responsible for taking action. When you have the chance, elect ones who understand there’s no time to waste, and that decline knows no boundaries.

Anything less, and the main tourist attraction in Marion County in 2064 could be our ghost towns.

— david colburn

Last modified Feb. 17, 2016

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