STILWELL — First Baptist Church pastor Dave Richardson and member Donna Rains don’t use traditional indicators to analyze strength of the local economy.
Set aside graphs on gross domestic product, money supply, housing starts and the stock market. The sweet spot isn’t found in unemployment rates, bankruptcies, mergers, foreign trade or the consumer price index.
Their metric is pounds of vegetables, bread, meat and canned goods given away through Stilwell Baptist Caring Ministry in this southern Johnson County village represented in the Legislature by House Speaker Ray Merrick, the top Republican in the House. The grassroots calculator preferred by Richardson and Rains shows increasingly dire conditions for their clients.
In 2010, the ministry gave away 429,000 pounds of food. That figure escalated to 557,000 pounds in 2013 and reached 807,000 last year.
“This has grown consistently for 72 months in a row,” said Richardson, senior pastor at First Baptist. “We don’t advertise. We have a sign in the front yard — ‘Groceries for Hungry People, Tuesday 2 to 3 p.m.’ Every month, more people come. What does that say about the economy?”
Rains, who coordinates volunteers who grow, sort and distribute food to at least 350 families each week, said a doctorate in economic theory wasn’t necessary to grasp where a job paying $7.25 an hour without benefits fell on the livability scale.
“We have a different value in humanity,” she said. “Think of the minimum wage earned by people at McDonalds, the housekeepers, the janitors. You can’t support a family on that.”
The road trip
While the 2016 Kansas Legislature took a five-week break, The Topeka Capital-Journal traveled more than 1,600 miles and stopped to speak with ordinary Kansans in more than 40 cities. Of the dozens interviewed, each was approached at random. They were young and old, urban and rural, wealthy and poor. Some regularly voted, but others didn’t. Partisan affiliation wasn’t relevant to conversations. In fact, politicians were intentionally excluded from discussions.
The fundamental question: How is the local economy?
The query is topical to House and Senate lawmakers returning Wednesday to the Capitol to seek consensus on closure of another state budget deficit. During the past few years, each time the state government found itself swimming in red ink, Gov. Sam Brownback and his allies managed to patch the hole. They have relied heavily on one-time fixes.
A shortfall emerged last week with disclosure of a projected $228 million deficit in state revenue during the final three months of the current fiscal year and the upcoming fiscal year. Brownback plans to withhold $100 million in state payments to the public pension system, sweep $185 million in highway funding by delaying projects, extend a $17 million cut to state universities and sell future tobacco settlement revenue for a quick $150 million.
In the 2015 session, state lawmakers dealt with a deficit by raising Kansas’ sales tax to 6.5 percent. It will be far more difficult for senators and representatives seeking re-election in 2016 to close the deal by hiking taxes again.
Kansas Democrats and moderate Republicans link the state’s financial challenges to the 2012 reductions to individual income tax rates and repeal of the income tax on owners of more than 330,000 businesses. Farmers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists — anyone operating as a limited liability company or S corporation in Kansas — pocket more than $200 million annually by paying no state income tax.
Brownback promised his supply-side push to take the state’s income tax to zero would invigorate the Kansas economy. Huge job gains were predicted, but growth has stagnated. He has joined with Republican colleagues to blame the state’s failure to meet revenue projections on weakness in crop and cattle markets, the oil price crash, and trouble in aviation manufacturing, as well as national policy embraced by Democratic President Barack Obama.
Sun shining, in spots
The city of Leawood, nestled in the state’s most populous county, has a finite amount of vacant land available for business development. In a city where the median home price surpasses $300,000, there are 600 acres primed for development. The money crowd is clamoring to get a piece of that action.
“I just met with an attorney who works with a lot of developers around here, and he has probably 10 different projects that he’s going to be bringing to Leawood over the next six months,” said Kevin Jeffries, president of the Leawood Chamber of Commerce.
He said the eagerness of investors reflected their inability to earn much with cash sitting at the bank.
Their long-term development decisions won’t have anything to do with whether the state extends a special tax break to LLCs, he said.
“The fact that interest rates are so low has a lot to do with it, and the lack of alternatives of where to put your money. People with investment funds are looking for options to maximize return,” he said.
Overland Park salesman Rick Burnell, an Eagle Scout, avid chess player and fan of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, said the Kansas City area was one of the nation’s best-kept secrets. It can’t be denied, he said.
“Average income is higher and unemployment is lower. Kansas is not as bad off as other states,” he said.
Alvin Sykes, washing down a breakfast roll with coffee in the downtown area of Kansas City, Kan., said rosy assessments of life in the metropolitan area don’t take into account deficiencies in the Wyandotte County economy.
The modern border war with Missouri, which involves throwing tax breaks at companies to move across the state line, has marginal benefit for ordinary residents of Kansas City, Kan., he said.
“It’s a tale of two cities. Great for some, but for the rest of us? No,” said Sykes, who devotes his time to civil rights causes. “Ask people. This is a verifiable food desert. There are no grocery stores.”
Economic contrast also can be found between town squares of Oskaloosa and Holton. The square in Holton is vibrant and packed with eclectic shops. Oskaloosa serves as the other side of the coin. There are empty storefronts, and some still in business suffered greatly with emergence of the Village West shopping district in western Wyandotte County.
“When Nebraska Furniture opened — it’s 20 minutes away — it hurt,” said Angela Griffin, who has worked at The Home Center in Oskaloosa for a decade. “The last couple years, people are not buying. They don’t have the money.”
In Holton, the Hotspot coffee shop is part of a renaissance that transformed the square into a magnet for consumers.
“The economy here is thriving,” said Hotspot owner Sarah Draper. “There are more merchants on the square than there were 10 years ago, back when we had numerous vacant businesses.”
Anyone driving between Garden City and Dodge City on U.S. Highway 400 must pass through Cimarron, a city settled in 1878 with a name taken from a fork in the Chisholm Trail that led travelers to the river.
Matt Monical, who attended Washburn University before earning a pharmacy degree at the University of Kansas, is taking a stand in Cimarron. He owns the pharmacy in a downtown building adjacent to the highway. His wife, Kimberly, runs a boutique in the adjacent storefront. There is a classic soda fountain that can be seen from the highway through tall windows.
“We’re trying to build our downtown,” Monical said. “We are part of that. It’s for the small-town feel.”
He said the 6.5 percent statewide sales tax adopted in 2015 hadn’t damaged their businesses. However, he’s concerned about pressure to raise the minimum wage — an idea espoused by Rains at Stilwell Baptist Church. It could kill the soda fountain, he said, because the operation is usually staffed by high school students earning the minimum.
The cities of Garden and Dodge share economic vibrancy borne of old and new economics. Dodge City will always be linked to nostril-curling cattle feedlots and processing facilities run by Cargill and National Beef, but significant investments are being made in downtown redevelopment, with a water park, distillery and microbrewery on tap.
Diversification into casino gambling and wind turbine farming has broadened job opportunities, said Joann Knight, who leads the Dodge City and Ford County economic development corporation.
“The wind energy — we really like seeing that. It helps subsidize some things for our landowners, our farmers. It gives some of our younger folks good-paying jobs,” Knight said. “I’ve been doing this job for 25 years now, and in the last five years, we’ve had more expansions of our manufacturers than I did in the 20 years prior.”
In Garden City, agriculture’s roots also run deep. The city benefits from a Tyson plant and growth in wind power investment, too. But construction of a $235 million milk processing plant will help reinvent the area as the state’s dairy capital. An LLC subsidiary of Dairy Farmers of America is constructing a plant to dry milk, resulting in a product that can more easily be stored and shipped.
Economic expansion has accented development of the region’s complex cultural web.
“If people want to understand immigration, come to Ford County and Garden City. They’d figure out what’s going on. It truly is a melting pot,” said Brett Marshall, sports editor of The Garden City Telegram.
Up north in Oakley, the depressed oil industry and soft grain prices have left a lump in the throat of locals.
Kyle Bloom, who owns Sunshine Bakery, said the economic struggle weighs on people concerned about the future of local public schools.
“When I hear people talk, it sounds like their biggest concern is education and the money that needs to be there,” Bloom said. “For me, I’m happy to pay my share of the taxes so the kids get an education.”
The EF5 tornado that leveled 95 percent of Greensburg and killed 11 people in May 2006 more or less eliminated the local economy. Portions of the city have been uniquely rebuilt with an eye to “green” construction. A portion of that work has been dedicated to telling a story of community rebirth, said Stacy Barnes, convention and tourism director for the city.
She said the monument to the deepest hand-dug well was configured into a museum that chronicles how one Kansas town survived disaster. Tourists to Greensburg now contribute to that slow economic rise — one person at a time.
“We definitely have a story to tell,” Barnes said. “We want people to come see us now.”
The owners of JR’s Pawn Shop and The Book Exchange, two long-standing North Broadway businesses in Pittsburg, offered nearly identical answers to the central question about the economy.
“It sucks,” said John Renn, who runs the pawn shop stuffed with instruments, tools and other artifacts. “There’s no jobs in this area to speak of. No factories are coming in.”
“Well, the economy here in Pittsburg sucks,” said Beverly Feiling, who inherited the Book Exchange founded by her parents. “They say the economy is getting better. But my husband works in Joplin (Mo.), and there has been no raise in six years.”
The city is nearly blanketed with signs that declare “God Bless America.” They were donated by a local businessman who grew weary of people complaining about the mingling of religious conviction and government affairs.
It is a worthy sentiment, said American Concrete owner Dennis Crain, but more than prayer is needed to save the region’s economy. He questioned wisdom of decisions by the Legislature and Brownback to undercut the T-Works highway program by raiding the budget at the Kansas Department of Transportation — forcing delays of 25 major road construction projects.
“Right now, the economy is hurting. I don’t understand what Brownback thinks we can get out of robbing T-Works,” Crain said.
Parsons elementary school principal Craig Bagshaw said the city’s economy took a hit in March when Tank Connection, which produced bulk storage tanks for companies involved in fracking, announced two rounds of layoffs. Demand for tanks dwindled as the price of oil plummeted from nearly $100 a barrel to about one-fourth of that price.
“We have more foster care families in the city than Kansas City, Kansas,” Bagshaw said. “It’s income.”
Bronson city clerk Ellen Harper, who runs a one-person shop on Clay Street between the towns of Iola and Fort Scott, said she had witnessed an economic decline that has persisted for the past decade.
“It’s definitely not good,” she said. “People are moving away for jobs.”
The recession’s shadow hasn’t receded from the life of Johnny “Rocky” Smith, a Topeka resident sporadically employed in the construction industry. The national economic crash seemed like someone turned off the flow of jobs and still hasn’t opened the faucet more than a trickle, Smith said.
“It’s improved some, but I know a lot of my friends aren’t back to work in the way it was 10 years ago,” he said.
Marcia Cooper, who belongs to the Second Cup Book Club in Manhattan, said the financial muscle of Kansas State University and the U.S. Army base at Fort Riley gratefully keep the city isolated from some fluctuations in the state’s economy.
“We don’t even understand it sometimes — how bad it is in other parts of the state,” said Cooper, who worries about the stock market and other economic trends. “A lot of us are on fixed incomes. So, 0.25 percent really doesn’t help you buy many groceries.”
In Salina, S&P Coin owner Carl Adrian said the attempt by Brownback to make Kansas into a state without an income tax was like a child trying to force a square toy into a round hole.
“He’s trying to play like Texas,” he said, “and what’s good for Texas is not necessarily good for Kansas.”
Demise of greyhound racing at betting tracks in Kansas is the type of economic contraction that makes no sense to Kathryn Lounsbury, manager at the Greyhound Hall of Fame in Abilene.
Second- and third-generation families that raised greyhounds for racing were left out in the cold when the state authorized construction of four casinos in 2007, she said. There is good reason, she said, to modify state law to make dog tracks viable again.
“There’s so much more to greyhound racing than just that 34 seconds on the track,” Lounsbury said.
Mike Langrehr, who operates The Town Galleria in Baldwin City, said the combination coffee shop and jewelry store barely squeaks by financially. With all the tax breaks given by state and local governments to companies making big promises to add jobs, he said, there are only scraps left for smaller operators.
“I feel they’re not doing anything for people starting out,” Langrehr said. “I’d really like to employ someone, but I can’t.”
Wichita State University junior Erik Alejandre is planning a career in real estate. He is an optimist, despite pessimism expressed by other Kansans. He said there would be job opportunities for someone like him in Wichita after he graduates with a marketing degree.
“I think there will be,” he said. “It’s a city that’s growing.”