| Nice downtown buildings, quaint brick streets, welcome signs and friendly retail service greet travelers to Norton, Kansas, but Mike Posson thought the community could do more. Crumbling sidewalks in some areas, a lack of drinking fountains and a vacant church were among items targeted for improvement by Posson and a group of others recently.
With a population of 2,880, Norton is one of the communities participating in First Impressions, a K-State Research and Extension program designed to boost a community’s vitality by capitalizing on its strengths and improving on its shortcomings.
“Each community has its own unique strengths and weaknesses,” said Nadine Sigle, community vitality associate with K-State Research and Extension. By identifying its strengths, it can focus on marketing them to attract new residents and retain those currently living there. She is working with communities in northwest Kansas that are participating in First Impressions.
With First Impressions, a team of volunteers from other towns makes an unannounced visit to a participating community to explore its residential, retail and industrial areas, plus schools, government locations and points of interest. The idea is to take a look at a community with a fresh pair of eyes.
Whether in one’s own home or community, it’s easy to pass by something without thinking about how it looks to others, said Sigle, who is based in Osborne, Kansas. For the first-time visitor, is the drive into town welcoming? Is there something unique that may help draw people to shop? Does it strike them as a community they would like to return to?
Communities are sometimes complacent about both their strengths and weaknesses, Sigle said. Sometimes strengths are taken for granted, and weaknesses are accepted as part of the norm.
Once completed, the assessment helps drive goal setting and priorities for new development, plus identify ways to strengthen community services.
In Norton, one of the top priorities identified was to improve signage to help guide travelers and visitors to facilities and attractions, said Posson, who is a member of the Norton County Economic Development board of directors and chairperson of newly established Norton PRIDE, a volunteer group dedicated to improving the community. It is affiliated with Kansas PRIDE, a partnership of K-State Research and Extension, the Kansas Department of Commerce and PRIDE, Inc.
Norton also focused on revitalization of some parks, businesses and residential areas, said Posson, who noted that going through First Impressions was a good fit with a strategic planning process started earlier in 2015 by Tara Vance, Norton’s community foundation executive director.
“Specifically, one of the most historic buildings that was noted in the First Impressions has since been renovated, which now makes a positive statement in our historic downtown,” Posson said of a current law office that had previously been a bank building.
Teams of volunteers will decorate 20 large flower pots to correspond with each season, he added.
Sigle’s work in helping strengthen northwest Kansas communities is made possible by a partnership started in 2015 between K-State Research and Extension, the Kansas PRIDE Program and the Dane G. Hansen Foundation http://danehansenfoundation.org/.
Improved signage is also a priority for Belleville, Kansas, according to Melinda Pierson, director of the Belleville Chamber and Main Street. Although there have been ongoing efforts to improve the community, participating in First Impressions was a “wake-up call,” she said.
Belleville, which has a population of about 2,000, is installing new signs pointing the way to public buildings and points of interest, including the Highbanks Speedway, high school, fairgrounds and city park. In addition, brochure holders were purchased for hotels and restaurants to help make visitors aware of the area’s attractions. Committees are also improving the area’s parks and walking trails to promote healthy living.
“We’re continually working to make the (Belleville) website better,” Pierson said, including encouraging residents to submit items to the community calendar.
“The most obvious challenges for communities in general are housing, child care, the aging population and population loss. To compound that, the ag economy is in a tight spot with reduced commodity prices, as well as livestock prices,” Sigle said, adding that it’s unusual for both grain prices and livestock prices to drop at the same time. “The economy of northwest Kansas communities, as well as the rest of the state, is dependent on the agricultural economy.”
Aging infrastructure is another challenge. As buildings deteriorate, the cost to rehabilitate them often exceeds what it takes to start new. The lack of a vibrant downtown for any community makes it difficult to attract new business.
Sigle said she’d like to see more communities take advantage of local and regional opportunities: “In our small rural communities, our culture is to do things ourselves and not ask for help. We’ve been fortunate to have several resources, such as the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, increase their level of support in northwest Kansas. To maintain or improve the quality of life here, we need to utilize these resources.”
Applying for grants can be intimidating for those who are new to the process, but once the fear is resolved, she said, she believes more communities will take advantage of the resources.
Common traits in strong communities
When asked what traits strong, successful communities share, Sigle said having a structure that allows people’s voices to be heard – in the form of city council, chamber of commerce, PRIDE committees or others – and sharing of information are key. She recounted what someone in one community told her: “It all started with a conversation. From that conversation, others were brought in, and the excitement became contagious.”
It’s also important, Sigle said, to allow committees to do their work and not be micromanaged: “Success breeds success. When a project is complete, it’s ok if a volunteer backs away for a while. When something they are passionate about comes along, they’ll be back.”
Sixteen communities participated in First Impressions in Kansas this past year: Almena, Atwood, Belleville, Colby, Ellis, Grinnell, Lebanon, Lenora, Lucas, Minneapolis, Natoma, Norton, Oakley, Smith Center, Stockton and WaKeeney.
K-State Research and Extension