Archive for Thursday, February 14, 1991

SMALL TOWNS OFFER THEIR SHARE OF SUCCESS STORIES

February 14, 1991

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Leaders in area communities frequently face tough decisions when balancing city needs and fiscal responsibility in a time of rising populations and shrinking dollars.

However, small towns need not lose hope, says an official with an organization that helps develop leadership in rural communities.

"There are still a lot of small towns figuring out how to hold on even though the challenges are great," said Milan Wall, co-director of the Heartland Center for Leadership Development, a non-profit organization based in Lincoln, Neb.

Towns located near metropolitan areas such as Lawrence, Kansas City and Topeka tend to experience growth and must explore innovative ways to handle it, he said.

Wall said towns that have trouble securing grants for local projects frequently set aside money over a period of years until enough is collected to either finance a particular project or provide matching funds for grants.

For example, McLouth city officials had discussed upgrading roads for several years and finally established a special fund about three years ago. The city collected about $11,000 and recently received a $300,000 grant from the Kansas Department of Transportation to upgrade Main Street, which runs through McLouth's business district.

THE CITY'S water system also recently was improved with two new wells, emergency water lines, replacement water lines along Main Street and a new 800-square-foot water treatment plant. McLouth received a $300,000 Community Development Block Grant and issued $100,000 in revenue bonds to fund the project.

Another town that's managing in a period of rapid growth is DeSoto.

"The city's infrastructure is in real good shape," said Mayor Jim Beadle. "Our sewer's only at 50 percent capacity, and we put in a new water tower three years ago."

Located on Kansas Highway 10, DeSoto attracts residents who commute to jobs in Kansas City or Lawrence, Beadle said. However, the city is working diligently to bring more industry to the area.

"We don't want to see individuals leaving DeSoto to work," he said.

The Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant near DeSoto is expected to have a reduction in its workforce in early 1994, and that will hit workers who live in the Johnson County town.

BEADLE SAID a number of companies have said they are interested in coming to DeSoto to pick up the slack.

"We're seeing a lot more people coming in, businesses who heard about the Sunflower layoff and want to pick up the employees," he said.

Airtex Inc., a Canadian company that manufactures commercial air-conditioning and heating units, plans to open a plant in DeSoto this summer and will employ about 250 people.

DeSoto also demonstrates another key point made by the Heartland Center. Wall said small towns should consider themselves interdependent with larger cities and find ways that the small towns and big cities can benefit each other.

Beadle said surrounding cities, such as Olathe, Lenexa and Shawnee have been particularly helpful about recommending DeSoto to firms seeking a more rural setting.

The Heartland Center advised that investing in the city's future is one move that inevitably will benefit smaller communities. Eudora has known this all along, says City Council President Tom Pyle.

"THE CITY is very, very sound," he said. "We've been a very frugal bunch, but sometimes we'll look ahead and invest our money in something that will help us in the future."

Pyle said Eudora's water quality is the best it's ever been, and the sewer system is well within standards set by the state. The city also has a road maintenance program that keeps the city's streets in good condition, and all new streets are required to be hard surface with curbs and gutters, he said.

Richard McNett, retired city superintendent, said the city chips and seals all 30 blocks of city streets every three years.

"They've been doing this for six years," he said. "It's really starting to show now. We used to have to put down patches all the time, but we don't have any potholes any more that way."

Even the smallest communities are looking to the future. In 1985, Linwood, now with a population of about 400, completed an $86,000 project that enlarged and modernized the water treatment plant.

"WE COULD double our population and still have enough water," said Mayor Arlene Pritchard.

The Heartland Center also recommends that small towns develop a strong commitment to education.

Some area school districts have demonstrated this commitment through careful planning, budgeting and community support. They have avoided some of the problems that have surfaced in growing districts such as Eudora, DeSoto and Basehor-Linwood, where patrons have recently defeated bond issues that would have financed construction or renovation projects.

Oskaloosa schools have experienced the 11th-highest percentage growth in the state during the past eight years. Enrollment has grown from 420 full-time equivalent students in 1982 to 565 this year. Yet school Supt. Jim White says space is no problem.

This year, students and staff expanded into an 11-classroom addition at the middle school. The district also opened a new library and multipurpose room in the school complex. The $2 million project was funded through a lease-purchase agreement with Chrysler Capital Public Finance Corp., Kansas City, Mo., and the district's capital outlay fund.

"IT TAKES a commitment for a long period of time, and I think the reason some don't try it is because they're afraid with the ups and downs of state financing they might not have sufficient money to make the payments for 10 years," White said. "If other superintendents could find the money to commit to that, I'm sure they would do it."

He said the district has taken a number of small steps, such as reducing the amount of money that it carries over from year to year, to guarantee the availability of $240,000 each year for the lease-purchase payments.

"You have that money in your budget, and some districts prefer to save the carryover," he said. "But we spend that money on a building."

"It's probably been 20 years since we had a bond election," White said.

"As far as buildings and facilities go, we consider ourselves in a very good position. We're hopeful now that we won't have to do any additional building. The only thing that I could see being added somewhere down the line might be a second gym. I think we should be in good shape for eight to 10 years."

The Heartland Center hopes such success stories will serve as inspiration for other rural communities facing hard times.

"Our general advice to communities is that they think of strengths they have that they can build upon or weaknesses they need to compensate for," Wall said. "The successful small towns that we've studied have demonstrated the capability to do that."

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