The Future of Rural Kansas?
By Angie Sutton
Meaningful, and even dramatic, action is required to ensure the future of rural communities in Kansas. We must conduct a significant inventory of our cities and towns, surface and acknowledge challenges, set strategies for the future and take substantial action to realize those goals.
Depopulation is a real threat.
There is little question that our agricultural lands will be farmed and ranched regardless of the fate of most our rural communities. This is critical not only for the local and state economy but for our basic need to feed people with an estimated world population of 10 billion by 2050.
But healthy and vibrant local communities are central to the quality of life of ALL rural Kansans. Perpetual depopulation severely affects the viability of local communities. With too few residents, communities can no longer sustain critical services like education, health care and even local grocery stores. Loss of population erodes workforce options and opportunities for economic development and diversification.
When young families leave rural communities, school enrollments decline and weaken the future of local education. Eventually many of their parents and grandparents will leave as well to move closer to family. The result is a loss of generations of accumulated wealth from the community.
This loss of people also means loss of taxpayers, forcing urban Kansas to sustain important infrastructure like roads, emergency services, water systems and telecommunications.
Finally, when retirees leave, communities lose volunteers, decades of knowledge and connections to past traditions. The potential for community giveback diminishes significantly.
If trends continue, the question is, how will this affect YOUR community? We have no illusions that there will be some towns in Kansas that do not have a future. Rationales for populating an area change over time and without renewed reasons for existing, many communities will continue to decline into extinction.
How can you reinvent yourselves in the 21st …and even the 22nd Centuries to ensure rural viability?
If you accept the primary responsibility of development, WHO will be the key leaders with the vision and capability to grow the RIGHT strategies?
Will economic development that creates jobs and generates the kinds of careers essential for attracting new residents be realized by YOUR community?
Most rural Kansas communities have far fewer development options when compared to larger urban communities. Research shows that successful core strategies focus on entrepreneurship, people attraction, youth, and outsourced workers. For rural Kansas, key infrastructure needs include high-capacity and affordable broadband, mobile phone service, same-day parcel services and core services such as access to local education, health care, and local government and businesses. Is your community willing to overcome lack of size by banding together regionally?
I want to close with three compelling questions…
Thinking about your community, what is ONE thing you would change?
What stands in the way? Be honest.
What strategies can you employ to begin the conversation in your community?