Archive for Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Brownback offers plan to lure people back to small towns

March 15, 2011

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— It was only a year ago that this tiny hamlet proudly boasted as its motto that it was "the smallest incorporated city in the United States having a bank."

But the Freeport State Bank has since abandoned the town of five residents. The old bank building is now the City Hall, where these last die-hard town dwellers along with farm folks from the surrounding area still gather once a week for coffee and gossip. Long gone are its grocery store, gas station, garage, barbershop and newspaper. No children are left to play on the rusted swing sets outside the old schoolhouse.

Established in 1884, Freeport in its heyday had 500 residents along with the surrounding family farmers to support its local economy. Today it could well be the poster child for rural depopulation in the nation's Great Plains states.

Towns such as this are the focal point of a plan by new Gov. Sam Brownback to fight the demographic forces hollowing out the farm belt and to protect Kansas' political clout in Congress.

Brownback has called for giving new residents to any county that lost more than 10 percent of its population a five-year exemption from state income taxes. The state would also help newcomers repay student loans they might owe.

The plan is the latest, but one of the most ambitious, offered by towns, organizations and even individual benefactors in middle America to bring new life to dying communities. Because Brownback, a Republican, enjoys strong GOP majorities in both houses of the Kansas Legislature, the idea has a good chance of winning approval. But whether it would work is another question.

Freeport Mayor Bill Peterson scoffed at the notion of rescuing Freeport. "The only thing left in this town is the government that runs it," Peterson said bitterly.

Some Democrats also questioned whether the offer was more than appealing politics. "Moving back to a community where there basically are no jobs? I don't how you are going to make a living and enjoy the benefit of that income tax exemption," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Democrat from Topeka.

The Great Plains contains 18 percent of the land mass of the lower 48 states and roughly three percent of its population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Stretching across the nation's midsection from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, the region encompasses parts of 10 states: Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming.

The rural populations there peaked around the time of the Great Depression and have declined since. The growth in the region has come around the metropolitan areas.

Census data from 2010 shows the extent of the depopulation in rural Kansas. Kiowa County in the southwestern part of the state fared the worst — losing more than 22 percent of its people since 2000. In all, 77 of the state's 105 counties lost population.

Laszlo Kulcsar, director of the Kansas Population Center at Kansas State University, said the reasons for the exodus from farm country are clear. Most people now prefer to live in urban areas because of the jobs and cultural amenities such as theaters and restaurants. Farm consolidations and modern agricultural technology have also eliminated the need for many farm workers.

"It is much easier to keep people in rural areas than to try to attract them back," Kulcsar said.

A number of states are granting tax abatements to lure new industry. Brownback says his personal income tax exemption would help Kansas compete with those states, as well as with Florida, Texas, Tennessee and New Hampshire, which have no statewide income tax.

Brownback says he is convinced Kansas is losing residents to states that have no income taxes, although he has no specific evidence to prove it. His conclusion is based on conversations he's had while traveling across the state. "I know and I've heard individuals who do that and leave this state. What I'm trying to do is to fight back," said Brownback, who was elected last November by pledging to help the economy and the state's fiscal health.

Brownback said he believes the state can lure back young people who may have graduated from Kansas schools or retirees looking to return home. He hopes an influx would prevent Kansas from losing one of its four congressional districts to a fast-growing state after the next census.

One resident who moved back was Carol Peterson, the Freeport treasurer and the mayor's wife. She grew up in Freeport and returned in 1985 after the couple retired.

"We do not want to lose the identity of this town," she said.

The governor's proposal is a welcome addition to the efforts of small Kansas towns to staunch their population losses. Some have given free building lots or tax breaks to new residents. Others have offered incentives to businesses — all with mixed results.

The hospital in the small central Kansas community of Ellsworth recruited an aspiring doctor by providing a monthly stipend. Katie Moore, 26, says she plans to return to Ellsworth, her hometown, after receiving her medical degree later this year. "With the economic changes, it has been hard on everybody, but especially with the smaller communities," she said.

Rob Fillion, executive director of the Smokey Hills Development Corp. in Ellsworth County, said 42 families responded to an offer of free city lots, including 15 from other states. But in the town of Osborne, just three families took advantage of a similar program in the six years it was offered.

Freeport's residents are willing to try anything. Tacked up on the wall of City Hall is a small sign: "Help Keep Our Post Office — Buy Stamps."

Comments

speedy47 4 years, 4 months ago

Let's see. Small towns have no jobs, and thanks to huge cuts in education funding, no schools. Who's gonna move to small towns? No state taxes will be a great incentive to lure people to rural towns. NOT!

prairiekansan 4 years, 4 months ago

It would be great to have folks move to, back to, rural Kansas. The internet would be the driver of this. More realistic is getting money and investment. My suggestion is the governor figure out how to change ex patriate's thinking (those in the state's urban areas and those who have left the state). Rural America needs these peoples money / investment. Like buying stamps in Freeport, we don't care where they buy the stamps from, just buy them from the Freeport post office. Sadly we also need the money / investment of those still living in rural america. How many retirement fund dollars are invested on Kansas' Main Street? Nothing frustrates me more than to know that local teacher, government employees, and farmers/ranchers/oilmen have their retirement investments on Wall Street with people they don't know, vs. their home town Main Street with the salt of the earth friends they count on to support the schools, churches and non-profit organizations of their hometown.

imastinker 4 years, 4 months ago

How exactly do you invest retirement dollars on main street, or with "schools, churches and non-profit organizations of their hometown?"

Ken Lassman 4 years, 4 months ago

Hey Sam, Did you realize how many small towns applied for and got grants from the Arts Commission? Small town folks like art projects too, you know, and there are many artists who prefer to live in small towns and rural areas who have applied for funding--and received it.

notanota 4 years, 4 months ago

There you go, offering practical solutions that would actually benefit small towns. You're harshing his buzz, man.

Lawrence_Pilot 4 years, 4 months ago

Who would want to move to or stay in Kansas, in general, let alone dying communities? (Hint: It's not about taxes, or no one would live in California or New York.)

The fact is, Kansas is far, far to the right of the mainstream. Those who don't share the views of religious right wouldn't want to live in a state where the religious right controls everything. Then you add in the less than great weather, bad schools, rednecks, Midwestern food...

Bob_Keeshan 4 years, 4 months ago

You can't expect people to move to rural areas without jobs, and you can't expect jobs without infrastructure.

Yet Brownback opposes efforts to get affordable high speed internet to rural areas, opposes efforts to protect quality local education, and opposes any economic tools, including support for the Arts, other than tax credits for low-paying job creation.

But hey, we'll give you a little break on your Kansas income taxes! I can't imagine this attracting anyone who isn't already retired. Which brings up the point that Brownback doesn't support a medical infrastructure for aging Kansans, either.

notanota 4 years, 4 months ago

I wouldn't want to retire to a community without easy access to medical facilities, so I'm not even sure exactly how many rich retirees looking for a tax shelter this plan could attract.

tolawdjk 4 years, 4 months ago

Doomed plan is doomed to fail. He can push this tax plan all he wants and it won't cost the state more than a couple grand at most.

If a unicorn does show up with a bag of money, they will just leave in 5 years when the benefits expire.

Cait McKnelly 4 years, 4 months ago

There are a number of reasons for the emptying of (geographic) Middle America. Primary among those reasons was the rise of the corporate farm, swallowing up multiple small farms, each of which contained a family that contributed to the local economy. Land that had been held in families for generations is now gone. (I've been personally aware of this. My son in law's grandfather was forced into selling his farm prior to his death. My husband's grandfather farmed in Illinois and had the same thing happen.) With the demise of the small farmer, support services in the economy; grocery stores, banks, gas stations, beauty parlors, etc., were simply no longer needed and towns died. Land held by farmers is now being measured in sections, not acres, and those farms contract to or are outright owned by huge corporations. Governmental legislation aimed at (geographic) Middle America; land banking, tax abatements, farm deductions etc, has all been done to support this. Brownback, in his years in Congress, championed all of this. And now he's crying because his towns are empty and (gasp!) we might even lose a seat in Congress? It points up the fact that the man wasn't even half aware of what was going on in the state he represented in DC. Wall Street went to war with Main Street and Wall Street, the side Brownback championed, won. Crying over the devastation left by that war is a little late.

Cait McKnelly 4 years, 4 months ago

Given some recent experiences by family members in south central Kansas, your assessment is straight on the mark. Judges and local lawyers collude with each other and are deep in the hip pockets of the locals. Said family member had to bring in an attorney from Wichita and threaten to take it to the state level before anything close to a fair settlement was arrived at.

Cait McKnelly 4 years, 4 months ago

You should watch this: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6775683n&tag=contentMain;contentBody It's the "48 Hours Mystery" episode about the murder of Mike Golub in Johnson City, KS. It points up the fact that being an "outsider" can actually get you killed and the murderers can get away with it. Talk about Children of the Corn!

TheStonesSuck 4 years, 4 months ago

and rightfully so. I mean, review your posts for goodness' sake. Why would anyone want to live near you? you sound hateful and bigoted, and fairly ignorant to the woeful state of affairs in KS. So yes, haters gonna hate. FTFY.

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