By L&T Publisher Earl Watt
Now that the decision has been made to expand Liberal’s schools, there is no better time to decide what type of community we want to be, and how we are going to get there. While we may still feel the fatigue of the bond election, there is no rest for the weary.
For one, the bond is going to create some new challenges, all good, but they are coming soon.
For one, the hustle and bustle that comes along with $127.8 million worth of construction is just about to descend on Liberal. That means a number of resources will be pushed including housing and local shopping.
With all of this activity, it’s time to decide what kind of community we want to be 10, 15 even 20 years from now, and how we plan on getting there.
USD No. 480 School Board President Delvin Kinser said, “We won’t recognize this community in 10 years.” He may be right.
What we need to decide is what we will look like 10 years from now.
Here is your challenge — you cannot use the words Garden City or Dodge City in determining Liberal’s future.
Whoever we want to be does not include either one of them. They have decided who they want to be, and they are making the investment to make that vision come true.
Something else to consider is the difference in population of those two counties to our own. Finney County (Garden City) has 37,098 people. Ford County (Dodge City) has 34,819. Seward County (Liberal) has 23,390.
It is an unfair comparison to expect a county with 30 to 40 percent less population to have the same resources.
When looking up similar population centers to Liberal and Seward County, there really is no good comparative data.
Other counties may be close to our population, like Sumner (23,674) and Pottawatomie (22,302), but they are not concentrated into one city. They have several small cities.
Other towns the size of Liberal are also not very comparable. They are either in locations close to other economic centers like Derby (22,943), which is a suburb of Wichita, or Prairie Village (21,769), which is adjacent to Kansas City.
Hays is a close comparison (20,510) except that it lies along Interstate 70, and it sits within Ellis County which has a population of 29,053.
What that means is we have a unique population, a unique geographic location, and our future plans will have to be unique. There is no template, no manuscript we can simply cross out some other town’s name and write in our own.
When you see some Facebook posting about some new business going to Garden City, you can let them know that Finney County has 14,000 more people than Seward, or when someone walks up to you and says, “Garden City is growing, why aren’t we?” Make sure they know that according to U.S. Census estimates, Liberal has grown at a rate of 2.7 percent while Garden City is at 1.2 percent since 2010.
We are growing, and our growth has nothing to do with theirs.
What we do need to consider is how will we define our community.
How can the Joint Economic Development Council recruit business if they don’t know who we want to be?
What type of business makes sense for us? Sure, we can use the generic “all the above” line, but it doesn’t give us a clear-cut direction.
We have heard discussions between retail and industrial for decades, and we certainly aren’t going to turn anyone away. But Garden City didn’t just talk about retail, they invested tax dollars into it. Dodge City didn’t just talk about entertainment, they invested tax dollars into it.
What are we willing to invest in that helps define the community we want to be? There is no time for a five-year study to answer this one, because the schools will be under construction in a few months.
We will have a strong customer base for at least the next five years, and we need to direct that activity into developing the kind of community we want to be.
Just like the school overcrowding issue was a conversation with the community to develop a plan, we need to keep the conversation going to discuss the next step in our growth.
Liberal is poised for a major expansion, but if we don’t plant the seeds now, all we will get in the end is overgrowth and weeds. We will grow, but we may not like the crop.
Now is the time to keep the lines of communication open. Now is the time to offer ideas for housing and economic development.
We need to strike while the iron is hot.