‘It means community’: Kansas rural development director evangelizes small-town life

October 10, 2022 3:33 am
Christy Davis answers questions for podcast

Christy Davis participates in a podcast recording Sept. 29, 2022, at the Kansas Reflector office in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Roving with Clay Wirestone

Opinion editor travels Kansas and beyond for stories off the beaten path. Read them all here.

When I began driving around the state for the Kansas Reflector last year, I didn’t know what to expect.

I was raised and educated in Kansas, yes, but I had spent nearly 15 years away. When I returned, I worked in Topeka and Lawrence. The rural areas of my youth weren’t just distant in memory — they were a lengthy drive away. My childhood recollections of these places as comfortable and nurturing clashed with the national political narrative that had emerged over the past 20 years. Urban areas were growing and progressive. Rural ones were decaying and reactionary.

Thankfully, my experiences have flown in the face of those stereotypes. And while reporting for an an upcoming town profile, I also ran across an expert guide.

Christy Davis serves as the rural development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I spoke with her for this week’s Kansas Reflector podcast to learn about the challenges and opportunities of rural life in Kansas.

“There’s something about rural America that certainly lives in the hearts and minds of most folks in the country, but most of the folks don’t live in rural America,” she told me. “So for those of us who do, I think we feel like it’s the best-kept secret out there. It is, to me, to a lot of rural Kansans, it means community. There are so many of us who grew up in a small town and move to larger cities to seek employment and other things. But a lot of us are returning to those small towns because of community and the interpersonal connections, encountering people that you may or may not agree with every day and working together as a community to get things done.”

Davis has worked in community development and related subjects for nearly a quarter century. She also served a stint as director of Symphony in the Flint Hills. President Joe Biden appointed her to the rural development post, and she’s been on the job for about three months.

She speaks about the rural life and experience with the passion of someone who knows and appreciates it — but someone who daily experiences the challenges.

“These aren’t always the sexiest projects,” she said about her organization’s work. “When you are meeting with folks who are on the ground, working in small towns and trying to get things to work, it’s things like infrastructure, water, we’ve all heard a lot about broadband. But water, basic infrastructure, electrical service, these are things that are critical for any community to survive and thrive. And the communities that we work with don’t always have the capacity to deal with those things.”

Christy Davis appears at news conference
Christy Davis, the USDA’s director for rural development in Kansas, appears at a news conference Sept. 22, 2022, in Holton to announce a $6.3 million grant for a fiber network across six Kansas and two Nebraska counties. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

The sad truth is, rural Kansas has been neglected for years.

Industries, like the oil drilling that sustained Neodesha in southeast Kansas, have drifted away. Schools have closed. Downtown buildings and housing have fallen into disrepair. I remembered all of this from my youth, as my family moved from Altoona to Emporia to Garden City to El Dorado, going through dozens of small towns along the ways. You could watch them founder.

Reversing that trend, as Davis has done personally by renovating and renting a bank building in Council Grove, takes bravery.

For some towns, that means investing in infrastructure by raising taxes, without a guaranteed return. For others, it means applying for grants or recruiting new businesses. Whatever the case, it requires money, time and dedication.

“They have to make great sacrifices, just like the folks who built these communities in the first place, to ensure their survival long term,” Davis said. “And I think many of us who did grow up in rural Kansas were probably raised to leave. I think there’s a generation of folks who maybe weren’t even thinking about the next generation. And now we’ve got many decades of disinvestment, and we’re trying to make up ground. And it’s a lot of work.”

Take the simple-sounding issue of housing. While rural populations have declined, new residents can struggle to find places to live. Contractors find it more profitable to focus on suburbs, where they can build dozens of homes close together near an urban center. Projects in small towns cost just as much, with fewer units needed.

A mural on the side of a brick building in downtown Neodesha features the town’s trademark oil derrick while honoring the local Masonic Lodge. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

Or consider the challenge of applying for grants. That takes time and energy from town employees, not to mention required reporting on progress. Some places simply don’t have the necessary manpower, not to mention available matching funds.

But despite these challenges, Davis sees abundant reasons for optimism. There’s the help offered by the USDA, of course, but also the examples set by others.

“There is a whole new generation of folks who are disrupting rural communities, and I think in a very good way,” she said. They are “creative folks, a lot of times people who’ve grown up in these small communities. They’ve moved away, they’ve they’ve established businesses, and they’re coming back. And they recognize it’s a great place to raise a family, but they’re also reinventing small business in these communities. And I’m really excited about it.”

What does that mean? The future of rural Kansas is up to Kansans. Folks just like you and me. Folks who are willing to take a chance. Folks who want to both change their home state and reinforce the very communities that have supported it for a century.

“I see folks who are younger than the average age in rural communities, who are going in and investing in those communities, oftentimes their own hometowns and have some skin in the game,” David said. “And you know they’re investing money time, blood, sweat and tears. That gets me excited because then I know there’s a future for these communities.”

And that means there’s a future for all of us in the Sunflower State.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.