Developers accept task to turn it around
Marion County is caught in a downward spiral.
The population of Marion County has decreased 10 percent over the last 10 years according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We can push the spiral the other way,” Marion Economic Development Director Doug Kjellin said.
Why did Marion County lose so many people in a decade? The decline resulted from a number of factors, some of which interweave and affect each other.
“Young people aren’t having as many kids,” Hillsboro Economic Development Director Clint Seibel said. “The population is an older population.”
Marion County having a large number of retired citizens is nothing new with those 65 and older accounting for more than 25 percent of the population.
Another factor is the increasing mechanization of agriculture. Seibel estimated that the average farm in Marion County is about 3,000 to 5,000 acres. He said that this is a big change from when 1,000 acres was a big farm.
“That’s not even the two, three times bigger corporate farms,” he said.
The difference is the technological advances in farm machinery. Seibel and Kjellin both said that tractors, tillers, combines, and harvesters all continue to increase in size allowing fewer people to farm more land.
“Families would have eight to 10 kids,” Kjellin said. “One kid can make it after Dad decides to retire.”
A map showing percent of population change in Kansas from 2000 to 2009 confirms that nearly all Kansas farming counties have decreased in population. Some counties have lost 15 to 20 percent of their population over nine years.
The most influential factor in Marion County losing population is employment.
“The majority of people live where they work,” Peabody Main Street Association Director Shane Marler said. “Economic trends show repeatedly the decrease in populations of rural areas is due to large cities having jobs, amenities, entertainment etc. that small communities cannot compete with.”
While downsizing or loss of employers — the Golden Living nursing home closing in Marion as one example — in Marion County has been part of this recent trend, far fewer people are commuting from Marion County to McPherson, Newton, and Wichita for work because of transportation costs.
Kjellin and Seibel both said that they are concentrating on trying to attract small business entrepreneurs to their cities.
“I’d rather have 10 companies with 10 employees each (than a big industry),” Kjellin said.
Marion County Economic Development Director Teresa Huffman said that her focus has changed as well.
“In the past, when people thought about economic development, they thought about recruiting big businesses into these areas,” she said. “For our county, it’s smart, to do smaller businesses and let them grow.”
For Huffman this process of “economic gardening” starts early. She wants to reach out to potential entrepreneurs in the fifth and sixth grade. Marion County has already sponsored entrepreneur fairs to encourage invention and business in Marion County children.
“Yes, go get your education, but come back,” Huffman said. “You can operate a business here.”
Huffman also tries to assist existing business. Her goal is to go to Marion County businesses and try to help whenever she can with business and marketing plans.
However, bank regulations have handcuffed Marion County banks from making loans to startup businesses. Kjellin said to receive a loan an entrepreneur needs to already have funds.
“If they have money, they wouldn’t need a loan,” Kjellin said.
To counteract this Kjellin and Seibel have encouraged existing businesses to expand. Kjellin cited the collaboration between Ida French and Tamara Christiansen moving into a larger location in Marion for PLANTations and Zimmerman’s. In Hillsboro, Midway Motors and Carquest are both moving into larger buildings.
Another part of “reversing the spiral,” as Kjellin said, is to try to improve the things that attract people to Marion County.
“Small communities must ‘shore up’ the qualities that attract prospective citizens. Good schools, cost of living, crime rate among others should be the ‘feathers’ in Marion County’s cap,” Marler said.
Kjellin said that Marion has worked on city infrastructure prior to his tenure. Marion used grant funds from the Kansas Department of Transportation to improve school routes for children. Sidewalks on Weldon, Freeborn, Lincoln, South Cedar, Lawrence, and Eisenhower streets were improved.
Kjellin also talked about using Marion schools as a marketing opportunity to attract new residents.
“Have you had a chance to look at people when they walk in the new gym?” he asked. “They all ask, ‘how were you guys able to do this’?”
Seibel mentioned that Hillsboro is trying to help homebuilders by applying for grants from USDA Rural Development.
“I get calls for rentals all the time,” he said. “We believe if we build some houses — if they are income appropriate — it would bring in more people.”
Kjellin and Seibel have witnessed people coming back to Marion County. Seibel said that a family that was living in California just recently moved back to Hillsboro. Kjellin said that many members of the Marion High School class of 1983 — including himself — have moved back to Marion to raise their children in a small town atmosphere.
“We need people who are looking forward to making the community better,” Kjellin said. “I’m not in this to tie or lose. Every idea is a great idea; doing nothing is not an option.”