Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Community, Opportunity, Responsibility


“One way or another community is at a turning point. I think change is coming. We just need to be careful how it’s managed.”

- Brian Comer – Senior Planner for
HNTB Corporation – Commenting on the creation of a comprehensive plan for Emporia, Kansas

Last night’s Gazette featured some of the facts and figures gathered by HNTB Corporation, the consulting firm the city of Emporia has hired to help create a comprehensive plan, to “Put together a statistical package to show Emporia where it is before the city settles on where it’s going.”

Not all the numbers released by HNTB are really all that startling. They reveal what I and others have seen as we’ve trudged this wonderful city’s streets. They reveal, among other things, that Emporia is a true blue collar town right now. Twenty-four percent of Emporia’s workforce is employed in the manufacturing sector. That’s a very high number, especially when less than ten percent of Emporians are working in professional or white collar trades. According to Comer, “You usually want to see about 20 percent in the “white collar” jobs. With Emporia at half that level the findings are telling us that our economy is not diversified enough to sustain the kind of economic growth we all want. As Comer put it, “Your tax base is not sustainable if you’re relying on three major employers. The major struggle of the community is to try to diversify its commercial-industrial base, so there’s not too much reliance on one or the other.”

While I believe in the importance of the blue collar tradesmen and women of this city, I also believe it’s critical to our development as a city to improve the level of white collar participation in this city’s economy. Last week when I announced my candidacy for city commission I noted that Emporia needs to find ways to retain graduates from Emporia State University and Flint Hills Technical College. The report confirmed what I believe.

Further, I also said the city also needs to find ways to attract the growing number of younger retirees who are ready to sink their roots down in a community and contribute to its well being. The numbers released show us why that’s happening. The report is telling us that we have an urgent need to diversify and re-vitalize Emporia’s economy. There simply aren’t enough opportunities being made. That must change if Emporia is to become the city we all want it to be.

The report also showed us that, given our current demographics, attracting retailers or small, professional type businesses is going to continue to be difficult unless something changes. At a median household income level of “$30, 809 (calendar year 2000) Emporia is at the low end of the Kansas income ladder. As Comer noted, “Reasonable or not, that can make recruiting a retailer more difficult – money tends to go where the money is.”

Once again, the report is telling us we must diversify and revitalize.

The statistics on dwelling units are showing us the same thing. Forty-three percent of Emporia’s dwelling units are rentals, fifty percent are owner-occupied, and seven percent are vacant. Comer noted that in the current economic environment “it’s not unusual for a city to be 60 percent to 70 percent owner-occupied, a level that makes growth a little easier to come by.” We need to change our rental to owner-occupied mix to a number more in keeping with sound economic growth. A twenty percent swing might seem high right now, but we must start moving in the right direction. In addition, we need to start work on eliminating the high vacancy rate as well.

There was one eye-popping number from the report. Since 1985, the city has issued less residential building permits at any time since the 1960’s. While the numbers during those years spike, they never dipped below fifty, and in some years they reached levels as high as three hundred or more.

Why the dramatic decline? Was the completion of the work on Wolf Creek the only reason for this? I don’t believe so. As I’ve walked the streets and talked to neighbors I’ve learned that most would like to make improvements on their homes. But, they’ve found it extremely difficult to deal with the city’s building codes. While there is no doubt that sound building codes are critical to good development, there is also no doubt in my mind that our building codes and administration of them should be more user friendly. They should foster development, especially in the refurbishing and retro-fitting of Emporia’s older homes near the core of the city. Unfortunately, the numbers here in Emporia are telling us it’s not happening. That must change.

In addition, I’ve found that far too many properties, particularly rentals, are not held to decent standards of livability. To put it bluntly, too many slum-lords here in Emporia are getting a free ride. While codes here are difficult, code enforcement is, paradoxically, too low. I see this when I take my morning walks, particularly around the core of the city. There’s too much ramshackle and too little being done about it. That must change.

While the report does offer some solutions to the problems, it doesn’t answer them. That’s up to us. This is our city. It’s ours to live in and the problems are ours to solve.

When I announced my candidacy for Emporia’s city commission I said I believed that “together we can do better.” How can we do this? In three words – COMMUNITY, OPPORTUNITY, RESPONSIBILITY! We need to make Emporia a community that’s attractive to a diverse group of citizens. We need to find ways to convert unoccupied and sub-standard rental properties into owner-occupied and maintained homes in keeping with a vibrant community. We need to provide opportunity for economic growth, particularly Emporia’s college graduates, baby-boomers retiring from the workforce, and minorities. We need city government that is responsive and responsible, willing to work harder to make Emporia a great city.

The commission elections are a year off. I intend during that time to make my case. I intend to do my part to make Emporia all that it should be. It can be done. As my campaign progresses I’ll be outlining ways that “together we can do better.” To that end, I’ll be out and about in the community, listening to ideas, gathering concerns, and offering myself as a conduit for positive change here in Emporia.

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Emporia, Kansas

4 comments:

Marti said...

As always Phil, you have written a insightful and thought provoking article.

I am saddened by the decline of small towns, and you have provided some outstanding points on why this happens, and ways to slow the deterioration.

I wish you all the best in your bid for political office. Emporia will be enriched by your common sense and strong values.

Useless Man said...

I can't read those dsigns as I pass through the town at 80kms. they should put them in the downtown area.

I love the small town feel. Even growing up, I lived in a small city, and I miss that.

Thanks for sharing.

CM Edwards said...

One thing I notice is that young people are drawn to idea of leaving my small hometown in search of a better life in a big city. I'm sure this not a recent developement in human history, but still it's a tragedy in my opinion. We are an Appalachian town and the degredation we face on the TV and movie screens may have something to do with it.

I try very hard to get young people to understand that we could have our own vibrant community right here at home, if they would stay or at least commit to return after college, but my words seem to fall on deaf ears. Most young, thinking kids seem hellbent on getting away from all these "rednecks". In reality, regardless of politics these "rednecks" are our family members and some of the greatest people in the world.

I'm not a supporter of the Republican Party in the slightest, however when it comes to things that matter the most like saving our local communities- partisan feelings should be put on the shelf.

Pastor Mike said...

You got my vote!