County has resources needed to revitalize its economy, says observer of Texas turnaround

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Help yourselves, Marion County. Economic growth lies in our farms and countryside. The county can develop while staying true to itself, and form partnerships with people in neighboring states under a concept called regionalism.

That was the message Remelle Farrar, director of the Texas Prairie Rivers Region Inc. and Canadian-Hemphill County Community Development, told a gathering of Marion County leaders Thursday morning in Tampa.

“God really does help those who help themselves,” Farrar said.

No person or agency is going to do the economic development local people should do, she added.

God did help the folks of Canadian, Texas, when they stepped up to address economic issue there, Farrar said, and she fully believes God will do the same for the people and communities of Marion County-if they will draw on the lesson of Canadian.

Farrar said Canadian find economic revitalization by drawing city visitors to its farms, ranches and wildlife-then capitalizing on it.

Marion County has similar assets, said Farrar, who spoke to 53 persons gathered from nearly every community in Marion County, plus adjoining cities such as Newton.

The gathering was hosted by the Tampa Community Association with the initiative of Mayor Jim Clemmer and officers such as Gary and Carole Spohn.

A place of serious decline

Farrar said Canadian, only a short time ago, had economic problems probably worse than those of Marion County.

As recently as 1998, she said, most of the businesses along Canadian’s Main Street were boarded up following the last oil and gas boom that hit the area in the 1970s.

Farrar said back then, Canadian had one motel left “you wouldn’t want your mother to stay in,” and a single restaurant that was closing the doors early. Buildings once valued for businesses at $200,000 were being used to store recreational vehicles.

Schools were in decline as the number of children dwindled. The oil people, many of whom had been “hobby ranchers,” were gone. About 50 percent of the people were gone, taking 65 percent of the tax base with them, she said.

The town tried the standard remedy of hiring an economic-development director with a half-cent sales tax. They sat back to watch him fix the situation.

“But we forgot to tell him what we didn’t want,” Farrar said. “We didn’t want corporate hog farms, and we didn’t want somebody burning used filters on Main Street. We went berserk on him, and fired him. We didn’t want to look like everybody else.”

Evidence of prosperity

Today, Canadian has 10 restaurants, two new motels-with one one of them planning to build a convention center-a full Main Street and new things continuing to go up.

The old Palace Theater, built in 1909 for vaudeville, has been renovated by a family to 1940s decor with the latest in sound systems.

The town has 14 bed and breakfasts. Farrar said 70 to 75 new jobs were added last year, and 160 jobs were added in the last 18 months.

“There are two local Realtors with zero listings. They’ve all been sold. The oil-boom buildings are all full. We’re expanding beyond the market center.

“God did finally send us another oil boom, but the drilling was all at least 20 to 50 miles away. When the big dog back in Chicago or Oklahoma City sent his typical 35-year-old employee out to find the the best place for us to live, the employee knew this would be the place where he would be transferred. He would have to bring his wife and kids and his buddies’ families, so he was looking for the best schools with a doctor a dentist and things to do at night.”

She said tourism helped build the city, estimating that 40 cents of every dollar spent in Canadian is spent by tourists. She said businesses and ranchers earn an extra $10,000 each year because of the tourists.

Instead of spending economic-development dollars trying to convince business to move to Canadian, businesses now grow and move to Canadian because of how the development effort started.

“They move because they visited the place, and they liked it, and made the decision to move or start out there,” she said. “The solution may be to make it the place people want to live. Ninety-five percent of our success is from growing our own business.”

Farrar said Canadian doesn’t want chain stores, and reserves the city for small businesses that are unique. The community turned McDonald’s away, and throws away inquiries from the big stores that start out by saying they are looking at several communities.

“That’s to find out how much you’ll give them,” Farrar said, “and our answer is nothing.”

Targeting urban folks

Instead, Farrar said, Canadian began its effort in cooperation with the Texas Department of Wildlife and Parks by aiming at nature and cultural tourists-“those people from the cities who only want two things: to get out of traffic, and come to where their cell phones won’t work.”

She said they took special aim at urban people in their 40s and older, with household incomes of $60,000 up, living all the way from Chicago to Dallas and Houston.

“They want to get away from their lives, get away from the ordinary,” she said. “They want to enjoy what you and I have. You and I grew up in Mayberry, and we live in Mayberry. We live where people over 60 and people under 10 talk to each other, where, if a kid skips school, everybody knows it.

“If they come here, their kids can get out of the car to walk around, and make it back to the car by themselves without anybody bothering them.

“There are millions and millions of them in the cities. They are removed from the farms and ranches by generations, maybe even their grandparents were in the cities. There are more and more urban people all the time with no connection to the land. Their idea of open space is a soccer field.

“If we want to survive, we are going to have to know this, and recognize it as fact because there is more of them than us. They will decide what happens to us, and we want their money.

Urban resources

Farrar said the average rural person in Kansas makes $10,000 a year less than the urban neighbor.

“What they choose to spend that higher income on affects us, whether it’s the Urban League or one of those scary folks who want to turn us into a buffalo commons. They’ll be allowed to if we don’t educate them.

“When people see what we offer, they love it, but they can only love what they know. We are hidden from them, and they don’t know us.”

Preserving a way of life

Farrar said the goal of Canadian in forming the Texas Prairie Rivers Initiative-with its 15 counties and their towns in the Northeastern Texas Panhandle-was to involve its ranchers without taking away from what they were.

She said everybody knew a rancher wouldn’t be a rancher if he didn’t want the solitude of being a rancher. But, she said, ranchers also recognized they wanted at least one child to return to continue the family heritage of ranching.

If something didn’t change, the current generation of ranchers would be the last, she said.

Ranchers who were reluctant to be involved changed when they found that visitors to the land could come see prairie chickens without bothering them, or they could collect $50 every time people wanted to ride in the truck with them to feed cattle.

If a rancher didn’t want to be involved, they weren’t, she said.

Local similarities

Farrar said Marion County and most of Kansas has the farming and ranching community and wildlife going for it. She said she has “loved” Kansas since her son was recruited to play football at Southwestern College in Winfield.

“I never visited here until the last 10 days,” she said. “You already have what will attract people to your area. You know how to treat people. You have a sense of what you are, and you have maintained it.

“We have people coming from Amarillo, Chicago, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Dallas and Houston. They have changed our image of ourselves. They didn’t have an image of us before they came. The image is nicer than the money.

“I visited the Pilsen Church (with the Father Emil Kapaun Memorial), and I had tears in my eyes at the POW flag. I thought how much more effective it is backed up to a pasture than in would be in the square in a city. It gave me a sense of his background and his meaning to the community.”

Farrar said it was this same sense of community meaning that led to eventual success in Canadian.

Building on local opportunities

She said Canadian had one success story during its hard times. That was “one smart college kid” from Canadian who made a lot of money in a knowledge-based business and brought it back to Canadian because it could be located anywhere.

“It employed mainly young men, and it worked very well,” Farrar said. “The problem was he couldn’t find enough qualified young people who wanted to live in Canadian because their wives didn’t want them to work in a place were they couldn’t eat out or shop or find what they saw as culture.

“We were losing a perfect economic-development tool. We knew we had to be looking at some source for inspiration.”

Farrar said they first went to the Bible, then to Progressive Farmer magazine, which ran an article on eco-tourism.

She said leaders recognized that the town trying to save itself-or the farmer and rancher trying to save themselves-couldn’t do it when the original purpose of the town was to serve farmers and ranchers. The two, their futures and their economies were tied together, she said.

“We had to marry the farmer or rancher and the small community,” she said. “We didn’t want to just run a hotel. We needed enough on farms and ranches to give people something to do for two or three days. We needed places to eat, and have entertainment for people to spend their money here.

“We involved our kids,” she added. “The kids are sharp. We asked them what was needed here for them to want to come back to live here.”

The people themselves put previous notions aside to keep talking, Farrar said. “We agreed we weren’t going to let our community die.”

The county commission set aside $5,000 for the group.

“That’s something Texas and Kansas have in common,” she said. “The county has all the power and all the assets, and that’s where the people have their sense of identity of who they are.”

Targeting changes

They identified public things that were important to keep going in Canadian, such as the YMCA and the non-profit daycare. The Palace was repaired with community agreement that nobody wanted to send their children 50 miles away for entertainment.

They found one couple who came to watch prairie chicken booming, and who then put it on a Web site that brought 2,000 more prairie chicken watchers to town.

Today Canadian has a program where prairie chicken viewers come to stay one night, go to an enclosed livestock trailer with warnings no bathroom facilities available beforehand to watch the chickens, and then finish with a movie at the Palace.

Farrar said the community has most of its money and commitment beforehand as reservations.

Forming partnerships

Farrar told Marion County residents to learn to look at their area through the eyes of outsiders who find it beautiful and unique.

She said the county needs to be involved in the regional partnerships involving states such Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, as well as regions within the state.

Peggy Blackman, with Flint Hills Rural Cooperative & Development, said regionalism is a wave of the future for economic development and gives local people access to learn from the success of communities such as Canadian.

It has special meaning here, Blackman added, because Marion County is one of nine in the Flint Hills group being targeted for a pilot project on “agri-tourism.”

Blackman is president of the RC&D Council of Kansas, which includes 94 counties, 23 of which have been losing population since 1920.

Farrar said Marion County could be like her county.

“We are hosting as many people as we want,” she said. “We want to be who we are, and share that. We don’t want to be Six Flags or Fredricksburg. Our ranchers believe in the conservation ethic that what God has given us we want to make better for after we go.

“There are people who would be jealous of us, and want to take it away from us. Instead, we would be here to share it with them. We haven’t had to try to sell that to anyone. Instead, they drive from six hours away to get to us.”

Farrar said she plans to return to Marion County at unspecified date to help develop an economic strategy for the area.

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