KANSAS CITY, KAN. The economic downturn doesn't seem to have hurt development in Wyandotte County -- a community that has long struggled to compete with its bigger, richer neighbors.
For decades, crime, high unemployment and poverty marred the county's reputation as it tried to stem the flight of families and businesses to neighboring Johnson County and Kansas City, Mo.
Now, it's Wyandotte County that is experiencing an economic boom.
The county is boasting its highest economic growth in more than 30 years, thanks in large part to Kansas Speedway, which has spurred development.
"It's kind of ironic that we're experiencing this when everybody else's economy is on the down side. But I have to be selfish and say this is long overdue for our community," said Don Denney, spokesman for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.
"We've been on the decline for the last 30 years, and losing population," Denney said. "We've had a really stagnant economy."
Now, restaurants, hotels and retail stores are clamoring for a spot at Village West, the tourism district surrounding Kansas Speedway, and people are moving to the county, sparking increases in housing values for the first time in decades. Violent crimes have been cut almost in half during the past eight years, Mayor Carol Marinovich said, although the unemployment rate continues to hover around 9 percent.
"It's not easy today. I think what we're doing is laying a strong groundwork for the future. There's light at the end of the tunnel," Marinovich said.
Wyandotte County appraiser John DeVault said home values have jumped about 10 percent each year for the last few years, and the housing boom does not appear to be slowing. In 2002, more than 290 new homes were built in the county -- a 30-year high -- and new construction permits totaled $142 million.
"I like to think people just found out where we're at and they just want to come here," DeVault said.
In comparison, the state's largest city, Wichita, is suffering through massive layoffs and faces a $10 million shortfall.
"Signs of shaken confidence abound. Layoffs have accelerated, profits have evaporated. The boom times of the 1990s seem as though they occurred a century ago," outgoing Mayor Bob Knight said in his State of the City address Thursday.
Janet Harrah, the director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University, pointed to two factors that have helped the Kansas City area economy: population growth, which has driven construction permits, and Kansas Speedway.
"Because the Speedway is a destination, it's bringing a lot of tourist dollars," Harrah said.
The changes began with consolidation of the county and city governments in 1997, then continued as Kansas Speedway was built and the first NASCAR races began in June 2001. Abutting the Speedway is a 400-acre, $340 million tourism district that will include restaurants, numerous retail stores, hotels, a new baseball stadium for a minor league team, and something else the county currently doesn't have: a movie theater.
"There are better opportunities for residents than there ever has been -- at least in my lifetime," Denney said.
Marinovich said the projects are expected to attract more than 7 million people to the area each year. Already, Cabela's, which opened a sporting goods superstore in August, has drawn more than 2 million people.
Before development, the 400-acre area generated less than $15,000 per year in property taxes, Marinovich said. Last year, it drew more than $1 million, and by 2005, is projected to bring in more than $5 million each year.
Marinovich said revitalization is not just happening near the Speedway in western Wyandotte County. Developments also have taken place downtown that include new homes, the Hilton Garden Inn, the Environmental Protection Agency's Regional Headquarters and the Board of Public Utilities building.
Wyandotte County still faces some problems, however.
Denney said the county isn't in "the dire straights that some communities are in." But it must make some tough decisions to make up for $5 million in budget cuts because the state has decided not to provide funding to local governments.
Marinovich said the challenge is to make sure basic services do not suffer to the point where the county backslides in its efforts.
Growth also has provided an unusual problem for county leaders: Explaining why higher property taxes are good. Tax rates haven't gone up, but higher property values mean people are paying more, Marinovich said.
And the county still faces more blight and crime than the mayor would like, as well as a high unemployment rate.
"Have we addressed every single issue yet? No," Marinovich said. "But we're on the right track. We definitely are on the right track."