Cities start conversation about developing housing throughout the county
By Deb Hadachek Telescope editor
Home may not be as far away as you think. That was the consensus when representatives from most cities in the county came together Monday at the Republic County Commissioner meeting to brainstorm ways to develop moderately-priced housing- -and attract new residents– to their communities. People like Bentley Parker knows that his hometown of Republic lacks 24-hour convenience stores like residents might find in a city.
“But you also don’t have crime, and it’s a safe community to live,” points out Luke Mahin, Courtland, Republic County economic development director. “There are a lot of people returning who are familiar with rural areas and understand this way of life. “You have a lot more to offer than you think,” Mahin said.
Mahin noted with the recent employment increase when the Reinke Manufacturing plant opened–and dozens more jobs expected in the future–communities should think about the future.
“I think there’s more opportunity than we know right now,” he said. “We’re pretty lucky to have this situation.” Commissioner Frank Rytych agreed. “I think for the first time in many years we have a chance to reverse the trend of declining population that our county has been on.” Representatives of cities on different corners of the county like Parker noted that the advantages of their cities for lifestyles outweighs any driving distance.
Narka’s mayor Nathan Svoboda notes that since he is self-employed as a carpenter, his drive to a job might be fi ve miles, or might be 50. “There’s a lot of people who don’t think 20 miles is a long way to drive to work,” he said. And Parker noted that places like Narka and Republic are central to live for families who might work in Belleville or Deshler. Gary Cline, longtime mayor of Scandia, just laughs that a “new” idea touted in the national media a few years ago has been in place in Scandia for more than 50 years.
“Any lots the city owns we donate to people who want to build,” Cline says. “The whole area north of US36 was developed that way. There’s still a couple of lots there, and we have another area in the south part of town that could be developed if needed.”
Monday’s discussion was the beginning of what Mahin hopes becomes a countywide initiative to improve housing, especially in the middle-income range. A larger meeting will be scheduled in the next two months to bring together interested communities with local, regional and state resources that can help communities pursue a housing project, he said. “We need to promote middle income housing, not low income,” Mahin said.
Some new workers moving to the county have looked into apartments in Munden and Republic, he said, but their wages are too high to meet the low-income requirements for those units, he said. “We also have to have rentals right now to allow people time to find the home they want,” he said. “Houses are selling like hotcakes now if they are priced right.”
Mahin encouraged all of the communities to pursue a housing assessment, and contact him to list vacant lots, rentals and properties for sale on a master list. “There are developers interested in ‘scattered development’,” he said. Instead of a developer working in just one area in one community, some developers are interested in vacant lots scattered across a community or several towns. “They’re doing it in Western Kansas now, and have been successful with it,” he said.
Mahin said he hopes a local developer might pursue the idea. “I’d like to build our economy first,” he said. Make development easy “We have lots in Scandia but the owners don’t want another neighbor,” said Cline. “They want to own the lot to control the neighborhood.” Brian Angevine, Cuba, said his city also has multiple vacant houses owned by people unwilling to develop them or sell them to someone else. “I’m hoping by working together we can really put a face on this issue and show the whole county we’re willing to do something,” Mahin said.
Mahin said he would also like to see communities develop nonprofi ts that individuals could donate their properties to a community. That has tax benefits for the individual, he said, and allows the community to more easily offer properties to the people willing to develop them. “It’s the same thing we do with the industrial development park,” he said. “We are just securing land as a community to make it easy for development to happen.”