Opinion: The financial facts about urban Kansas

Depending on the definitions you use, the residents of Kansas’s rural counties and small towns make up less than a third, and perhaps as little as a quarter, of the state’s total population. Despite our reputation as a rural farming state, Kansas is surprisingly urban.

For this reason, it’s important to do what hasn’t been done often enough and think seriously about the fate of Kansas’ cites, both their limitations and their strengths.

Chase Billingham, a professor of sociology at Wichita State University, recently reviewed the effects that COVID-19 has had on cities across America, focusing on matters of particular concern to Kansans. Foremost among them is that our largest cities are in many ways both overbuilt and underfunded, making them more susceptible to the current financial crises than they ought to be.

That the pandemic has hit cities hard isn’t anything new; that’s where the people are, after all. But the economic importance of those cities isn’t simply because people are there; rather, it is because the people there can work and create and play in heterogeneous mixings that some scholars have seen as the root of the “creative class” economy. Entrepreneurship, investment and experimentation in financial, technological and service sectors, rather than manufacturing, is what has built most urban wealth over the past 30 years and what continues to make cities attractive.

Obviously, social-distancing rules, restrictions on large gatherings, and people choosing not to commute and working from home has halted much of that mixing. While some of it will likely return, much may not, especially since the tax revenues that paid for the services and amenities that enabled that mixing in the first place have been severely reduced.

Some speculate that the cities best positioned to adapt to the post-pandemic world will be small or midsized ones, since they might be able to re-create urban mixing in a safer context, and thus appeal to those who are doing their creative work remotely anyway. (Billingham mentioned Tulsa, Okla., as an example; potentially Topeka or Lawrence could be the same.)

But that re-creation will depend upon having the resources to do so, and that will depend upon not having been overly burdened by financial liabilities — such as massive infrastructure and public works projects, which almost always increase in costs and almost never pay for themselves.

In Kansas’ two largest urban areas, Kansas City and Wichita, activists have long warned about the costs of the “just build something” mentality. Whether it be the Northland Sports Complex in K.C. or the Riverfront Legacy Plan in Wichita, both cities have grand — and incredibly expensive — ideas for attracting and holding on to “creatives.” Whatever the arguments for those plans, though, the debate over them has been happening while the governments of these same cities have been forced to reallocate, delay or just plain cut from the budget money for all sorts of urban basics — road maintenance, sewer repair, public transportation and more.

The solutions to these problems aren’t obvious. Charting alternative paths is difficult even in the best of times. But being serious about what can be achieved in Kansas’ cities today, by focusing on incremental and sustainable growth rather than grand, top-down plans, is essential. We owe it to one another to not let the unique post-pandemic possibilities of Kansas’ small and midsized cities slip away from us, all because we were blind to the financial facts before our eyes.

— Russell Arben Fox runs the history and politics major and the honors program at Friends University in Wichita.

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