The north side of the square in downtown Humboldt, Kansas. Barring further disruption from the pandemic, by the end of 2021 all these buildings will have businesses in them again or will be under construction for a new business in 2022, says Alana Cloutier of A Bolder Humboldt. All but one were vacant in 2017. (Submitted by Alana Cloutier to Kansas Reflector)
We got news the other day that tech workers in San Francisco, defeated by the cost of housing and other annoyances, “can’t leave the Bay Area fast enough.” They’re fleeing for places that aren’t much better, like Miami and Austin, but the New York Times story about all this did mention Topeka.
Kansas’ capital city, you’ll recall, will pay people as much as $15,000 if they move here and buy a house.
“We got over 4,400 submissions with resumes or expressing interest in the program,” says Barbara Stapleton, of Go Topeka, which works with employers who contribute matching funds for the incentive.
Since Choose Topeka launched just over a year ago, Stapleton says, employers have hired 30 people, including a few who are working remotely during the pandemic.
They’ve come from Chicago, Texas, Seattle — all over the country.
“When you talk with those from San Francisco or the Los Angeles region, they talk about how there’s so much more stress where they’re living,” she says. “They’re tired of being in that hyper environment.”
It’s not only the possibility of affording a house that lures them.
“What we’re really seeing is people who are looking for that intentional community, the authentic experience where they can know their neighbors,” Stapleton says.
Topeka does have some image issues to overcome. Choose Topeka’s website emphasizes what Stapleton calls the “cool factor” — breweries, parks and trails, an arts district — all of which, it bears emphasizing, are separate from whatever the town’s winter interlopers might be doing at the Statehouse.
“As a community, Topeka wants residents to recognize that we’re more than just what is happening legislatively,” Stapleton says. “We’re the state capital, but that’s not only who we are.”
And Topeka isn’t the only place in Kansas drawing disenchanted West Coast tech workers.
After 25 years in the Bay Area, Paul and Alana Cloutier moved to Humboldt, a town of just under 2,000 people a couple hours south of Topeka, in 2017.
They, too, wanted to be part of an intentional community. And they knew there was one happening in Humboldt thanks to members of the Works family, of B&W Trailer Hitches, whose story about reinvesting in their hometown has made national news.
To be fair, Paul Cloutier had a connection to Kansas before he moved here from California. He was born in Wichita, so he came back for holiday visits with family and maintained friendships with Humboldt’s “Works kids” (everyone’s now in their 40s and 50s).
Like so many Americans, the Cloutiers reassessed their lives after the 2016 election.
“The country ended up being so divided over the outcome of that, and that’s not an ideal situation for anyone, regardless of your politics,” Paul says.
After taking an Amtrak to Kansas that Thanksgiving, they saw what the Works family was doing in Humboldt: restoring old, pre-1920s buildings that would be perfect for a bar, a hotel, a frame shop, an art gallery. The wanted to help.
So they bought a house and moved to town. And, with the Works kids, they started A Bolder Humboldt to restore old buildings, get redevelopment grants (such as last year’s $1.5 million to extend a bike trail into downtown), consult with people who want to start businesses and put on events.
Now, businesses with their own “cool factor” are moving in. A coffee company, a fancy candy store, a women’s clothing boutique and other shops not so different from what you’d see on any block in San Francisco.
The politics, of course, are different.
In November, Alana ran for the Kansas House. She lost in typical rural-Kansas Democrat fashion, getting 25% of the vote compared to Republican Kent Thompson’s 75%. But at least she ran. Now she’s the party’s 2nd Congressional District chairwoman.
“Democrats have just been really quiet in rural areas,” she says. “I’m trying to get people to just run, just start letting people know that we’re here. I mean, that’s why I ran.”
Paul, meanwhile, serves on the city council (and has written recently about the state’s property tax dilemma).
“A lot of times the arguments are about left versus right,” he says. “The thing that’s interesting about rural areas is it’s actually about top versus bottom. Most of the issues that we’re actually fighting against here are rich people grabbing too much, and everyone else fighting for the scraps, and it’s really about rebuilding an economy that is fair for everyone.”
He acknowledges there are “some social issues that are deeply ingrained on the left and the right.”
And now that we’re going to spend the next year and a half fighting about abortion, Kansas will probably feel much less hospitable to the type of people some folks call coastal elites but whose money, energy and ideas sure could help out rural Kansas.
Paul Cloutier advises tech refugees or anyone looking for easy money or the next big thing not to come to Kansas.
“It’s about bringing change by showing up and doing the actual work rather than talking about it,” he says. “This isn’t about left or right, this is actually about making sure that our communities have health care. It’s about making sure that our communities have childcare. It’s about making sure that our communities have good food available and are walkable.”
There’s not a line of electricians who share your politics, he says.
“It means you’ve got to suck it up a little bit and realize that you’re going to be working with people who have different opinions,” he says. “But the flip side is also true: We are here, and we are who we are, and those people have to work with us.”
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