‘It means community’: Kansas rural development director evangelizes small town life

When I started driving around the state for the Kansas Reflector last year, I had no idea what to expect.

I was raised and educated in Kansas, yes, but I had spent almost 15 years there. When I came back, I worked in Topeka and Lawrence. The rural areas of my youth were not only distant in my memory – they were a long drive away. My childhood memories of such cozy and nurturing places clashed with the national political narrative that had emerged over the past 20 years. Urban areas were growing and progressing. The rural people were decaying and reactionary.

Fortunately, my experiences flew against those stereotypes. And while reporting for an upcoming city profile, I also met an expert guide.

Christy Davis is Director of Rural Development for the US Department of Agriculture. I spoke with her for this week’s Kansas Reflector podcast to learn more about the challenges and opportunities of rural Kansas living.

“There’s something about rural America that certainly lives in the hearts and minds of most people in the country, but most people don’t live in rural America,” he told me. she says. “So for those of us who do, I think we feel like it’s the best kept secret there is. It’s, for me, for a lot of rural Kansans, it means community. So many of us grew up in a small town and moved to bigger cities to look for jobs and stuff, but many of us go back to those small towns because of the community and people-to-people connections, meeting people you may or may not agree with every day and working together as a community to get things done.

Davis has worked in the field of community development and related subjects for nearly a quarter of a century. She was also the director of Symphony in the Flint Hills. President Joe Biden appointed her to the rural development position, and she has been in the position for about three months.

She talks about rural life and her experience with the passion of someone who knows and appreciates it, but who experiences the challenges on a daily basis.

“These aren’t always the sexiest projects,” she said of her organization’s work. “When you meet people who are on the ground, working in small towns and trying to make things work, it’s about infrastructure, water, we’ve all heard a lot about broadband. But water, basic infrastructure, electrical service, these are essential elements for the survival and prosperity of any community. And the communities we work with don’t always have the capacity to deal with these things.

Christy Davis, USDA Kansas rural development director, appears at a news conference September 22, 2022 in Holton to announce a $6.3 million grant for a fiber optic network in six Kansas counties and two Nebraska counties. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The sad truth is that rural Kansas has been neglected for years.

Industries, like the oil drilling that supported Neodesha in southeast Kansas, have moved away. Schools have closed. Downtown buildings and housing have fallen into disrepair. I remembered all of this from my youth, when my family moved from Altoona to Emporia, from Garden City to El Dorado, passing through dozens of small towns along the way. You could watch them sink.

Reversing this trend, as Davis personally did by renovating and renting a bank building in Council Grove, takes courage.

For some cities, that means investing in infrastructure by raising taxes, with no guaranteed return. For others, it means applying for grants or recruiting new businesses. Either way, it takes money, time, and dedication.

“They have to make great sacrifices, just like the people who built these communities in the first place, to ensure their long-term survival,” Davis said. “And I think a lot of us who grew up in rural Kansas were probably raised to leave. I think there’s a generation of people who maybe didn’t even think about the next generation. And now we have several decades of divestment, and we’re trying to catch up. And it’s a lot of work. »

Take the simple issue of housing. As rural populations have shrunk, new residents may struggle to find housing. Entrepreneurs find it more profitable to focus on the suburbs, where they can build dozens of houses close together near an urban center. Projects in smaller towns cost just as much, with fewer units needed.

A mural on the side of a brick building in downtown Neodesha features the town’s oil derrick while honoring the local Masonic Lodge. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Or consider the challenge of applying for grants. This takes time and energy from city employees, not to mention the required progress reports. Some places simply don’t have the necessary manpower, let alone matching funds available.

But despite these challenges, Davis sees plenty of reason to be optimistic. There is the help offered by the USDA, of course, but also the examples given by others.

“There’s a whole new generation of people disrupting rural communities, and I think in a really good way,” she said. They are “creative people, often people who grew up in these small communities. They’ve moved, they’ve started businesses, and they’re coming back. And they recognize that it’s a great place to raise a family, but they’re also reinventing small businesses in those communities. And I’m really excited about it.

What does that mean? The future of rural Kansas depends on Kansas. People like you and me. People who are ready to try their luck. People who want to both change their home state and strengthen the very communities that have supported it for a century.

“I see people who are younger than average in rural communities, coming in and investing in those communities, often in their own hometowns, and having skin in the game,” David said. “And you know they invest money, time, blood, sweat and tears. It excites me because I know there is a future for these communities.

And that means there’s a future for all of us in the Sunflower State.

About Keneth T. Graves

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