Small town works together to end population bust

By Larry Dreiling
High Plains Journal – June 26, 2017

Photo by Larry Dreiling. Click on photo to view full-size.

Ever since westward expansion, settlement and creation of states allowed for the great population centers being the magnets for rural areas. Soon the immediate boom that statehood created during and after the Civil War led to bust—primarily after settlers realized there would usually be drought years following the rainy years that enticed them to move.

The High Plains has seen its share of declining rural population in agricultural counties. The question has been how to bring new generations of settlers who will, instead of pulling up stakes when bad weather occurs, bring diverse skills to establish new businesses or help grow existing ones to in turn bring renewal to these communities.

For decades, Quinter, Kansas, in Gove County, was typical of the declining community. While miles away from a tiny county seat, it had a small but sturdy population along Interstate 70.

Or so people thought.

When the results of the U.S. Census of 2010 were released, it showed Quinter with a 4.5 percent population decline to 918 people. That number paled in comparison to Gove County’s overall population decline of 12.2 percent compared with 2000.

Ericka Nicholson had just been appointed the new city administrator of Quinter at that time.

“Those census figures were crippling,” Nicholson said. “However, this created a perfect storm for us. We had a city council locked and loaded to stop the population loss along with an administration with the experience and connections out to end the loss of our greatest resource, our people. Together we said that the next census can look bad or it can look better. So far, the census estimates look far better.”

Indeed. According to U.S. Census Bureau 2015 estimates, Quinter’s population saw a 3.3 percent increase to 948. This has helped staunch the overall bleeding of Gove County’s population, with the 2015 estimate indicating the population has fallen by 3.9 percent, its smallest decline since the county was first officially measured in the 1880 census.

What increased Quinter’s population is a combination of developing new businesses through a revolving loan fund created by the sale of a factory building given to the city following the factory’s closing, along with a combination of strong local financial leadership, dedicated city and county employees, strong-willed advocates in local charitable foundations and tied together with a city council willing to trust Nicholson to help solicit federal, state and regional grants to develop new civic infrastructure that promotes a lifestyle welcoming to workers in all lines of work.

“I need to give all the credit to my progressive city council,” Nicholson said. “If you look at what has happened in Quinter since May of 2010, more good things have happened here since than in the previous 50 years. I attribute that to the mayor and city council. I am the extension of the wishes of those five people, but you have to bring in the ideas and have the connections to make things happen in order to be a catalyst for positive change.

“The flag we used to fly was ‘Look what we’ve done without any kind of economic development.’ I don’t want that to be our claim to fame any more,” Nicholson said. “One of the things I had to do was educate people who said we don’t want or need help. They didn’t understand these things were coming from our tax dollars anyway.”

The first project Nicholson pursued was the construction of a new facility for the Quinter Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department using a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant. The REDLG program provides funding for rural projects through local utility organizations.

USDA provides zero-interest loans to local utilities that they, in turn, pass through to local businesses (the ultimate recipient in this case being the city of Quinter) for projects that will create and retain employment in rural areas. The ultimate recipients repay the lending utility directly. The utility is responsible for repayment to USDA.

USDA provides grants to local utility organizations that use the funding to establish revolving loan funds. Loans are made from the revolving loan funds to projects that will create or retain rural jobs. When the revolving loan fund is terminated, the grant is repaid to USDA.

“That zero-percent loan saved us $81,000 over 10 years. We worked with our partners at Midwest Energy. It’s not a grant, but it’s the next best thing to free money,” Nicholson said. “We could never have pulled it off without that loan. We went from having a very tight space to having a facility that allows us to store more equipment and do more things to increase our fire protection abilities.”

The City has also used industrial revenue bonds—along with $850,000 in private financing—to develop a Cobblestone Inn and Suites off I-70, along with a low-income housing grant through the Kansas Housing Resource Corporation to build four new duplex homes.

“We just received $400,000 to pave a new $525,000 road in anticipation of a new $2.9 million housing development. That is the first new street in Quinter in 25 years,” Nicholson said. “We’ve passed a neighborhood revitalization plan and just received a $250,000 special facilities Community Development Block Grant to build our new baseball field.

“We hope to have all the paperwork done soon to begin construction in time for next baseball season. We have a nice softball field and a beautiful youth league field but not a Legion type field. We weren’t serving an entire segment of our youth population.”

The city also has received grants from Midwest Energy, the Porter Trust and the Dane G. Hansen Foundation via Gove County to build a new pool house for the municipal swimming pool.

“The only city tax increase we’ve had since I came back in 2010 was a mill levy increase in 2012 on the Jay Johnson Public Library to the top of their ceiling, which is two mills,” Nicholson said. “That means an average house saw an increase of about $20, but who’s going to argue over a library?”

And when you ask about health care, Nicholson transforms from administrator to volunteer emergency medical technician.

“We just saved money for 10 years and now we’re going to be able to afford a monster sized all-terrain ambulance,” Nicholson said.

Gove County Medical Center, with a substantial number of quality doctors and mid-level professionals caring for a large catchment area of Kansas, is a point of pride for city residents.

Last August, Gove County learned it would receive $1.96 million from the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Kansas Airport Improvement Program to build a concrete runway, taxiway, apron and access road for an improved airport in Quinter. This is on top of $652,000 in Kansas Department of Transportation grants for land acquisition.

The Gove County Healthcare Endowment Foundation, which helps fund projects for the Gove County Medical Center, has pushed for the airport grant for years. The foundation donated $270,000 to equip the runway.

“While anyone will be able to use it, this will be primarily for use by air ambulance service,” Nicholson said. “We’ve been taking patients who need air transport to WaKeeney or Oakley because we don’t have the proper airport. Now, these people will get direct treatment in Denver or other places like Shriners Hospital in Texas for burn victims with no long drive.

“But understand, this is that perfect storm of people, with the County, the City, the foundation, all working together to get things accomplished. We have these trusting relationships with each other to make good things happen.”

Nicholson said civic leaders should remember that return on investment is more than money. Instead, focus on the returns of bringing new business and people to a community.

“This shouldn’t be competition. We want our friends in other cities to get those funds, too,” Nicholson said. “People have seen our success here, and really, we’ve helped to make something that isn’t unique to Quinter. Just down the road, at Grainfield. They’ve built a new fire station with the same type of grant we used.

“If you don’t apply, these foundations and legislators and members of Congress will say why aren’t they being used and stop offering them. I think it’s a matter of not knowing the funding is out there.”

Quinter may be adding two new businesses soon. After years as a dry community, the city is now looking forward to seeing the opening of a new restaurant that will also serve liquor. The town has a space for liquor store, creating an ever-fuller Main Street.

“Those will be things people in town look forward to seeing,” Nicholson said.


Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
KSFFA’s Fire News Blog Home Page

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