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Community must move forward

Published 6/16/2010 in Commentary : Columns

By ERIC DEPPERSCHMIDT

"Over the last 30 years, virtually every rural county in the United States not located on the Intrastate Highway System has suffered economic decline. The rate of decline was typically very gradual. A small manufacturer would close one year, a year or two later another, some people would move away, a retail store would close, and on and on.

Like erosion of soil, it was not recognized by community leaders until the economic problems became acute, when nothing would grow.

After World War II, virtually every county in the United States grew economically. There was no memory or history of decline. As a result, community leaders in these areas either did not recognize the problem, or if they did, failed to take any actions as they likely assumed it would simply restore itself.

In Kansas there are 94 counties with a population smaller than Finney County. Among these, 71 of them have fewer people living there today than in 1982.

Over the last 20 years, Finney County grew economically and in population. The area, from 1980 to 2000, added more than 3,500 manufacturing jobs. Additionally, the agricultural industry grew both in crop and livestock production. However, as you are aware, the county lost 2,500 manufacturing jobs in 2000 and the negative effects are being felt.

I have studied hundreds of economies in the United States. The long term prognosis for your area is not good. There is every indication Finney County will now join the rest of the rural counties by falling into economic decline. This simply means there will be less money available for everything. Property values will likely decline and more people will have to move away. This is the likely scenario, unless the community decides to stop it from happening.

Your area is at a crossroads. You stand in time where most other rural counties stood 20 years ago. The advantage you have is you know, from their experiences, what happens if a community does nothing about it.

The difference, many times, between a strong economy and one which is faltering, is "community leadership."

During my last visit to your area I toured the Garden City Community College. During the tour it was pointed out to me the school was the first community college in Kansas. The first! Can you imagine the controversy within the community which surrounded the election in 1919 when Finney County residents voted to tax themselves for this progressive idea? I suspect there was more than one person who was against it. For a community your size to have such foresight and leadership to cause the first community college to be built in Kansas is admirable.

In Economic Development I have created for your area, I have identified a series of tasks and programs which need to be implemented to prevent future decline and to cause economic growth I am sure you will find some of the ideas better than others.

But the question before you now is simple. Do the residents of Finney County have the will and leadership to fight to preserve your community, or will you simply do nothing and allow it to fade into the night? Having met so many nice people in your area during my visits, I am confident I know which choice you will make."

Sincerely,

William H. Fruth, President of Policom Corporation

The above letter was attached to the Finney County Economic Development Plan in 2005 by William Fruth after completing numerous community visits and holding Town Hall Meetings to determine the ideal plan for our community. Fruth said not all the ideas will be embraced, however the premise was to use the plan as guidelines to ensure economic stability and growth. FCEDC has achieved a small portion of these goals with limited resources, and limited success. Now FCEDC has come to a crossroads and has been tasked to come forward with an aggressive thinking funding mechanism to assist with focusing on insistent economic growth to regain momentum started with the development of the Finney County Economic Development Plan in 2005.

FCEDC understands local government's struggle financially to provide services to the community, while others seem to weather the tribulations and difficult times not burdened with how they will cope with the needs of the present. The difference between the two situations is the condition of the local economies — one is vibrant while the other becomes stagnant and declines.

We cannot control the national and state economies. But we can control our future growth by establishing programs that are aggressive and provide pro-business climate, which draws the attention to new business as well encouraging and embracing entrepreneurship of our local business community. Communities which do nothing are destined to decline in economy and quality of life.

Our community has had a history of growing economically while most other counties in Kansas and the United States declined. While we have grown in size, the quality of the growth relative to the standard of living of people who live and work in the area has been on the decline. This is evident more now than five years ago when Fruth visited our community.

Projections show Finney County facing the same fate as many other rural communities. However, the important word is "projections"; these are only assumptions based on historical data. We as a community have an opportunity to influence our economic future. By creating an aggressive economic funding mechanism we will enable FCEDC to foster growth in Finney County and improve the standard of living for the future. FCEDC has requested this aggressive budget with the intention of creating a conducive climate ripe for recruitment of new industry.

FCEDC will use the requested budget increases for incentives such as: low interest loans for small business, cash grant incentives, specific academic training programs designed to enhance skilled labor, further development of industrial properties, and recruitment of advancing industries with strong future growth trends.

Improving our economy will not come by accident or by sitting on the side waiting for the federal and state government to assist. It will come from commitment and leadership by the entire community. Tough decisions are never easy; however, if we continue to be passive about our economy and future growth we only need to look at past data and trends to foresee the future.

Eric Depperschmidt is president of the Finney County Economic Development Corp.

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