THE SALINA JOURNAL COMING HOME SUNDAY, OCTOBER 13, 1996 7 ECONOMIC GROWTH DAVIS TURNER / The Salina Journal A subdivision of large, new homes called Triple Tree Landing attests to the economic growth in Ottawa County. A "strength index" indicates that the area is one of several rural counties on the rebound. GETTING Rural Kansas makes strides in past decade By LINDA MOWERY-DENNING The Salina Journal decade ago, A Kansas State University economist David Darling spent his professional hours tracking the decline of rural Kansas. He noted fewer residents, lost jobs, dramatic drops in property values. Finally, in August, came some good news: The state's economic base in small towns — in many cases those far removed from a major city — appears to be growing at a faster rate than in prosperous Johnson County and other metropolitan areas. The conclusion, included in a report prepared by Darling and K-State Extension assistant Chatura Ariyaratne, points to a possible rural rebirth, especially on the plains of western Kansas, patches of which were declared economically dead years ago. Top performers in the study included Wallace, Trego, Jewell, Ottawa and Sheridan counties. "This is the brightest picture I've painted in 10 years, and I think it's heartening," Darling said. "What we're seeing is that most of the big gains are in places west of Salina and quite isolated from centers of urban activity. These are places with an agricultural base." The study is based on a series of economic measurements in the state's 105 counties. Indicators include wealth, which takes into account housing, automobiles, recreational vehicles and other taxable, non-business property; employment; and personal income. Information from the indicators, which cover the period 199295, were used to develop a strength index. "The strength index is designed to measure community progress by tracking change in retail activity, employment activity and in "what we're seeing is that most of the big gains are in places isolated from centers of urban activity. These are places with an agricultural base." — economist DAVID DARLING personal wealth and income," Darling said. He was surprised by some of the results. North-central and northwest Kansas, regions of the state especially hard hit by farm and small business bankruptcies during the 1980s, outperformed other areas in the wealth category. In the overall strength index, northwest Kansas showed the most improvement with a score of 8.19. Southwest Kansas ranked second with 6.39. The overall score for north-central Kansas was 1.57, which placed it fifth in the state's six regions. The area was hurt by its showing.in the personal income growth category, which, accord- . ing to the study, fell into the negative with a score of -2.96. The personal income score for northwest Kansas was 3.95. Darling said reasons for the economic rebound in rural Kansas include an influx of new residents, everyone from retirees to younger people looking for a safe place to raise their families, into smaller communities during the 1990s. Another group of rural migrants is people who are drawn to rural areas in search of inexpensive housing. These residents tend to have limited resources and may even depend on government payments for income. "One wonders how that group will persist over time," Darling said. "When you look at these small towns that have inexpensive rental housing, will people start to move out again because of this welfare program (Which was recently reformed to limit the time someone can receive payments)? Some of these small small towns are quite a way from a job." Leaders in rural Kansas aren't sure how to interpret the results of Darling's study. "Anything positive is always good news," said Susan Harper of Jewell County. "What I see is that the county is becoming more unified, a realization that something good that happens to a part of the county is good for all the county." Leary Johnson, a commissioner in Trego County and former state representative, said there are signs of promise in his region, including the arrival of new businesses. This past year, two large terminal grain elevators sprouted along Old Highway 40 east of WaKeeney. There also continue to be reasons for concern. In August, commissioners raised Trego County's tax levy by 7 mills to pay for needed services. "We're just not generating enough revenue to pay for the services people want," Johnson said. "What it all gets down to is the standard of living. Has it improved? I'm not sure it has. I hope . this study is right. Maybe it's just something we can't see yet." Your Total News Source c£ Salina Journal •T r DRIVING OVER 50. 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