MACKSVILLE – Wanted: People.

The theme is the same across much of the rural Midwest. While the Great Plains has more than doubled in population since 1950, outside the metro areas in rural counties, population is waning.

Young people leave. Groceries close. Schools and hospitals shutter, as well.

But there is resilience in rural Kansas as creative efforts emerge to tackle depopulation and vitality. Yet, as many county officials across western Kansas look for ways to grow and survive, even if they would attract people, they are having a hard time finding a place to put them.

It’s been a struggle in Stafford County, where Economic Development Director Carolyn Dunn is fighting the uphill battle to grow population. The U.S. census estimates that Stafford County, with a current population of 4,350, has lost 430 people since 2000. Meanwhile, only 3 percent of the county’s housing inventory was built in the past 25 years, and most of it is occupied.

Oftentimes, the school district is one of the largest employers for rural counties. Stafford County has three school districts, including Macksville. Just a few years ago, the Macksville superintendent told Dunn that he hired five new employees but none of them could live in the county because they couldn’t find a place to buy or rent. Meanwhile, Dunn added, a new Stafford principal a few years ago struck out in an effort to find a rental and ended up renting an apartment in the assisted-living section of a local nursing home.

“You need more enrollment in schools, but housing is an impediment to creating those families,” she said.

However, Dunn, whose family farms in the county, is working to move Stafford County forward. She and community leaders are trying to solve the county’s housing issues, one home at a time.

On this fall day she stood on the dirt lawn of a new duplex in Macksville – the first of a handful of projects that Stafford County Economic Development has potentially planned. For the modern family searching for an affordable, up-to-date rental property, it couldn’t be more perfect.

This duplex, with an open floor plan upstairs, includes 2,080 square feet of finished living space per unit. There are three bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths and a full, finished basement. It also has energy-efficient features, such as high-efficiency windows and an on-demand water heater.

Right after completion last fall, there already was one taker and Dunn was searching for one more family willing to pay $700 a month.

“Some of my parameters I look at to see if we are achieving in terms of economic development include stopping decline, making sure we are maintaining our schools, the grocery store and the hospitals,” she said. “Your purpose here is to build a community where people can live and have the amenities they need, along with their job.”

Rural housing in Kansas

Stafford County’s situation isn’t unique, as counties across Kansas look for ways to address rural housing issues.

According to a recent Wichita State University rural housing study, 91 percent of economic development directors who responded said rural housing issues hindered the local labor market. Also, 74 percent of respondents indicated that the availability of housing was affecting the hiring decisions of local employers, while 71 percent indicated the result was fewer workers being hired due to the local housing situation.

There are some funding solutions, albeit limited. The Kansas Housing Resources Corporation’s moderate-income program was designed to fill a need identified by communities by pay to build housing and infrastructure, said Fred Bentley, KHRC’s director of rental development.

In 2012, the Kansas Legislature approved $2 million to be earmarked for the purpose of administering and supporting housing programs. Lawmaker allocated $2 million, as well, for both 2013 and 2014.

“Housing is a huge economic development engine,” Bentley said. “It creates jobs, supports jobs. We wish we could do more.”

In fact, the need is greater than the dollars they have, he said, adding, “We could be doing this all over the state.”

Much of the housing in rural Kansas is aged, small and outdated and would take extensive work to modernize.

“I think the need is significant,” said Bentley. “In most communities like in Stafford County, the needs are for a lot more units. I think all the rural counties are in the same situation.”

For example, he said, a cabinet manufacturer in Quinter was looking to expand. However, the town of 955 people didn’t have adequate housing.

“There was no housing for more employees, and they just left,” Bentley said of the company. They went to Colorado. “We’ve heard that in a few other communities, too. We believe the state should make a greater investment in housing.”

He said they have been able to help several communities with the dollars they have. KHRC awarded Lyons a $200,000 grant. The city is using it by giving prospective homebuyers a $25,000 down payment to purchase one of the city’s new three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes.

Pittsburg has a similar program, said Bentley. The program has also helped build homes in Dodge City, Coffeyville and Hutchinson.

In Ness County, officials implemented a neighborhood revitalization program that gives property tax incentives for homeowners who make significant upgrades to their homes, said Chris Palmberg, the county’s new economic development director. He also was forming a community housing council.

“A majority of the housing stock was built before World War II,” Palmberg said. “The average age of construction is pre-1939.”

“We have a very big need for moderate-income housing,” he said. “We need housing that simultaneously is available, appropriate and affordable, and that is always going to be the biggest thing out here in the sticks.”

Palmberg said one study showed that 20 percent more people were coming into Ness County to work than leave the county to work. And, he said, it is a “vicious catch-22.” Companies need people to employ if they want to grow. People need decent housing if they want to relocate to a community.

“We have a serious problem,” he said.

Making strides

Since Stafford County created the economic development position in 2011, Dunn and her board have been working to address growth restraints.

Early on, they identified the need for affordable modern housing, she said. Most of the county’s homes are nearing an average of 80 years old.

“If we don’t have enough housing for people, then it is hard to develop more business,” she said. “It goes hand in hand.”

Goals include increasing rental inventory, increasing general housing inventory and creating a better investment environment for housing.

The first step was to purchase the lot in Macksville for $10.

State funding has helped the county move forward with solutions. Last year, Stafford County Economic Development received a $168,000 Kansas Moderate Income Housing Program grant administered through the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation. Meanwhile, Dunn also was successful in garnishing $175,000 in Community Service Tax Credits through the Kansas Department of Commerce that generated $250,000 in funding. For every $1,000 a donor contributed, he or she was able to reduce Kansas income taxes by $700.

Leftover funds, along with corporate pledges and a $7,500 grant, will help spur the next project, which will take place in Stafford, said Dunn. The city of Stafford donated two lots for housing.

The board is still exploring how that home would be constructed, she said.

“Between it all, we are trying to keep this going,” she said of future homes. “We don’t know beyond (the Stafford home) what funding we will have, but we are going to keep working on it.”

Kansas Agland Editor Amy Bickel’s agriculture roots started in Gypsum. She has been covering Kansas agriculture for more than 15 years. Email her with news, photos and other information at abickel@hutchnews.com or by calling 1 (800) 766-3311, ext. 320.