The population decline in every Southeast Kansas (“SEK”) county is a disturbing trend and represents our biggest threat. As a result, there is a shortage of labor in the region, which is a serious hurdle when recruiting employers.
What can we do to attract new labor to SEK? We have to play both offense and defense at the same time, solving problems while working on the plus side. Here are some observations.
The biggest problem rural America has is the mass exodus of our young people to cities for education, better jobs, and entertainment. Study after study shows that our young people are far more experiential than we are, preferring the memories of an exotic vacation over the down payment on a home or the security of a vehicle without a monthly payment. Does it makes sense to go to herculean efforts to attract new people when the natives are not staying? Perhaps we should spend some of our resources on how to slow this dynamic.
Bourbon County REDI hosted the first ever county-wide strategic planning meeting this month, and the group was virtually unanimous as to the biggest barrier to attracting new labor: housing. A close second is our high taxes, which is part of the cause of our housing issues. Every government in the county is aware of this and many are focused on solutions. For example, the City of Fort Scott recently formed a Land Bank to give consideration to vacant properties and those that are in need of attention, and formulate creative solutions. It is a beginning, and other efforts like this are percolating. It will take all of us, every government, every civic organization and every citizen working together to make progress.
Third, we have to make our communities more attractive to outsiders. This includes previously mentioned issues such as entertainment amenities, cleaning up blighted properties, holding the line or lowering property tax rates and encouraging collaborative efforts. Additionally, we must pay attention to our infrastructure, which paints a rather daunting picture of our community to outsiders. Out-of-town realtors representing prospective buyers are aware of our sewer issues and warn their clients, which has a chilling effect on holding time and prices. Also, I consider the social media environment in a community as “soft” infrastructure; certainly ours could be kinder.
Lastly, we have to think outside the box to opportunities such as immigration. I am not talking about an uncontrolled mass migration of people; rather, a thoughtful, measured approach such as what has been executed with the three Afghan families in our community. They have been solid, productive citizens. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.
These issues represent mega trends that we cannot completely overcome, but perhaps we can differentiate ourselves from other small communities by being the best we can be. Many of us are committed to working on solutions for this community in which we have chosen to make our permanent homes. I encourage you to get involved as well.