Counties try thriving while shrinking
Published 5/29/2012 in News
By AMY BICKEL
Far from the plains of windswept Kansas where he grew up, Travis Peter
found a good job as a financial adviser in upstate New York.
The 2000 Tribune High School graduate lives minutes from a Walmart, along
with a variety of restaurants, retailers and entertainment.
Here, he and his wife, Zoe, a teacher, have made a successful life.
But when the couple's first child was born two years ago, Peter realized there
really is no place like home.
"Sure, it's hot and windy and not somewhere some people would imagine
wanting to live for the rest of your life," Peter said of his native Greeley
County. "I can do my job from anywhere in the world where the is an internet
connection," Peter said. "But having a child changes everything and it
certainly changes what your expectations are for the future and your wants in
In July, the family will move 1,400 miles to Tribune where, Peter says, they will
find a safe close-knit community with a good school system, good healthcare
and a quality of life one can't find in many areas of the country.
And, leaders in Greeley County — the state's smallest county — are hoping the
Peters are one step of many in the right direction.
Not that they don't know it won't be an uphill battle, said Economic
Development Director Christy Hopkins. The county lost 287 people in the past
10 years, according to the 2010 census. And, according to a Wichita State
University study, if it stays on the same pattern it has in the past three
decades, Greeley County could lose nearly 64 percent of its current
population by 2040.
That, however, Hopkins stresses, won't happen.
"If you listen, every day you can hear some voice saying, 'Stop. Give up. It's no
use.' You can let a set of predictions and forecasts stifle your energy and slow
progress. Or, communities can work to develop and continually improve,
creating places that people are proud to call home."
Even as counties like Greeley try to turn the tide, the century-long slide of
population continues in rural Kansas — with 73 percent of Kansas counties
exporting their biggest crop — their youths.
Census numbers released in March showed just 28 Kansas counties growing
— largely in population centers like Sedgwick, Johnson and Shawnee. Another
77 counties lost population — a similar problem that is stretching across
In all, U.S. census figures show one in four U.S. counties are dying with an
aging population and fewer farms contributing to much of the trend downward.
It's a spiral that has occurred for decades.
Back in the late 1800s, pioneers came to Kansas seeking land under the
government's Homestead Act. Railroads lured settlers and towns sprouted up
around these agriculture centers. Most county seats were centrally located so
residents wouldn't have to travel more than a day by horse to do their
These days, however, farms that had just a few hundred acres in the 1920s
now spread across several thousand acres in western Kansas. It means fewer
farmers making a living from the land.
Meanwhile, the population is aging, as the youth who graduate high school go
to college and never return.
In Kansas, 26 rural counties haven't grown since 1930. For 13 other counties,
the last reported growth was between 1940 and 1970. And even those
remaining counties in western Kansas that have grown since 1980 peaked in
population decades ago.
Harper County in south Kansas saw its last increase in 1910 — the same year
population peaked at 14,748 people. Today there are 6,034. In Washington
County along the northeast Kansas border, population peaked in 1890. The
county has since lost 74 percent of its population with just 5,799 people living
there in 2010.
Wichita State's study projects only 22 Kansas counties will grow in the next 30
years, a majority located in more urban counties in northeastern Kansas —
assuming migration patterns between 2000 and 2010 continue. In the western
part of the state, all but 10 are estimated to decline by more than 15 percent.
Now, rural county officials are grappling with how to reverse the trend.
"These places are fighting a really uphill battle against long-term historical
trends," said Jon Bailey. "I don't see any facts they will increase in the next
few decades if they haven't in the past 100 years."
Other Midwestern states are facing similar woes, he said. In Nebraska, 71 of
the state's 93 counties peaked in population around 1930 or earlier.
Locals, however, aren't standing by watching, he noted. Despite the trend
downward, some, he said are "thriving while shrinking."
"They have to admit they are declining," he said, adding that communities still
need services like hospitals, doctors and schools — especially as many rural
counties have a higher percentage of an older population. "These
communities still have people in them. They might be shrinking, but they can
thrive at the same time."
Part of that might be changing residents' mindset.
"I think there needs to be an understanding of the past," Bailey said. "If you're
a county has been losing population for 100 years, is there anything that will
turn that around?"
There are solutions, he said, but not one magic, silver bullet.
"People have to be realistic about that."
Those in Greeley County, the smallest county in Kansas with 1,247 people,
have different ideas amid farm extinction and out-migration — evident to
those who step foot into town.
While they lost 287 people between 2000 and 2010, Hopkins is quick to note
her county gained 11 in the past year.
"It's small gains," she said, but noted even those add up.
According to the 1880 census, the county had three people and continued to
grow until 1960 when it peaked at 2,087. Then decline began, slowly, but
It was the consecutive years of bad harvests and the acceleration in residents
moving to greener pastures that led to a community survival meeting in 2004.
More than 150 attended. Hopkins was hired in 2005.
They started a recreation league. A few new businesses were added to Main
Street. Earlier this year, Greeley and Wallace counties raised $160,000 from
residents to upgrade their movie theaters to digital. Seaboard last year
announced it planned to build a 264,000 maximum head hog farm that would
employ six to eight people. The local cooperative also is amid an expansion.
There is optimism in other counties, as well.
In Lane County, Economic Development Director Dan Hartman scoffs at the
idea of his county losing 55 percent of its population by 2040.
"No one can predict the future," he said, noting that even with a tough road
ahead — his county hasn't grown in 50 years — he and others are working to
reverse the trend.
He noted an oil company that was looking for a location to build visited the
county last week. If realized, it would bring 50 jobs to the area, he said.
And in Ness County, Economic Development Director Dale Staab says he also
begs to differ.
Ness, with a population of 3,100, lost 347 people since the 2000 census. The
last census growth was in 1930 when population peaked at 8,358 people.
Wichita State projects the county to lose 49 percent of its population in the
next 30 years, or 1,500 people.
"I've seen a shift in the attitude in the past couple years to something more
positive, energetic," he said. "That's why I think Wichita State is wrong."
Leaders already have installed a walking trail and are working to raise $60,000
to get it paved. There's talk of a community center and a new swimming pool.
The grain elevator and John Deere dealer recently expanded.
The county also is looking at expanding its airport, and Staab is actively trying
to recruit a dentist. The county hasn't had one in 20 years. The closest dentists
are an hour away.
"What we do in western Kansas, we have to find homegrown solutions to
these problems," Staab said.
Some have been attracted to the county through Gov. Sam Brownback's Rural
Opportunity Zone program that helps repay up to $15,000 of student loans to
those who move to a designated county. Kansas also offers a state income tax
rebate for up to five years to individuals who move to designated counties
from outside the state. Those eligible must have lived outside of Kansas for a
least five years.
Staab said one farmhand has taken advantage of the program and two
teachers from Texas are interested in moving to the county. Hopkins said she,
too, has people inquiring about moving to Greeley. Her phone has rung
dozens of times over the past few months from people telling her of their
desire to move back as they search for housing.
"But, we honestly don't have any place to put people," she said. "Housing has
She said she recently received a call from an Oklahoma couple with four
children who wanted to relocate to Greeley County. They wanted to purchase
a home in the country.
There were two homes she could direct them to, both needing "a little TLC,"
but both would be livable.
"I seriously think if I had 10 houses today I could get them occupied today,"
she said. "Bottom line is we have to figure something out."
The community formed Greeley Homes, a private investment LLC, to work on
Ness County officials also are looking at a small housing development, Staab
said, noting that homes in the county are typically 50 years old or older.
When a good house comes up for sale, it goes so fast it doesn't even make
the paper, he said.
"Housing is the biggest hold back on growth," he said, but added that housing
also needs to be affordable. He estimates young families with a couple of
children are averaging $50,000 a year in income.
Meanwhile, Peter and his wife are packing up boxes, preparing for a trip to
Kansas. Zoe already has a job as a teacher in the school system. Peter will
work from home and travel, on occasion, back to New York for business.
Zoe, who is from New Jersey but went to college at Kansas State University,
said she realized during a visit her in-laws that Tribune would be a great place
"I wanted to provide my daughter a place to live where a strong sense of
community exists, where she can wander around the neighborhood safely and
to be assured of a quality education," she said. "I also wanted her to see how
the majority of America lives and to see where her father grew up. I think it
would be neat for her to witness, and eventually take part in, harvest and
other farm-related happenings, so to speak.
"I would like my daughter to be encompassed by the warmth of Tribune's
community and by her grandparents, of course."
It's that wholesome quality of life that rural America is hoping to attract more
young families toward, Lane County's Hartman said.
Rural areas do a good job raising our kids, then sending them to college
where they graduate and take jobs in bigger cities. However, Hartman said,
these kids get married, have children and realize they want to raise their kids
where there is little crime and a good educational and health care system —
along with a quieter lifestyle.
Already he has had four people take advantage of the Rural Opportunity Zone
program, he said. Another four are interested.
Rural areas have the opportunity to grow, to buck the trend, he said, then
"Besides, if the Mayans are right, 2040 doesn't matter," he said.
|Reprinted with permission June 1 2012
The Hutchinson News