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A Tale Of Two Kansas Towns: One Thrives As Another Struggles


Many rural areas across the country are losing population and economic vitality but not every rural town, especially those that learn how to adapt. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has this report on two small towns in Kansas.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Thirty miles from the geographical center of the continental U.S., there's a tiny town with a big attraction.

Where are we, Linda?

LINDA CLOVER: Cawker City, Kan., at the Largest Ball of Twine.

MORRIS: Linda Clover is in charge of the World's Largest Ball of Twine.

CLOVER: (Laughter) I have several nicknames. I'm the Bell of the Ball, the Ball-erina.

MORRIS: Clover has spent most of her life in Cawker City, and she loves this place, but it's a shell of the town it used to be.

CLOVER: I mean, there was a bakery, a little bakery, several restaurants, pool halls, of course, banks. When I moved here in the '60s, there were three grocery stores. Now the number is zero.

MORRIS: Cawker City has a common rural problem. One hundred forty years ago, when it was formed, the big families living on many small nearby farms had no other place to shop or shoot pool. Since then, though, the farms have grown much bigger, and the remaining families are smaller. And increasingly, they're doing much of their shopping online. As career opportunities in town dry up, ambitious young adults tend to move away.

CLOVER: You have to find your little place in the world (laughter). And we've kind of lost it in our whole area really.

MORRIS: But as places like Cawker City struggle to remain viable, others like Garden City, Kan., are booming.


MORRIS: Three, 4 and 5 year olds are streaming into their parents' arms at this pre-K school in Garden City. Principal Josh Guymon says enrollment is up sharply since the start of the school year, and these parents come from all over the world.

JOSH GUYMON: We have a significant Burmese population. We have a Vietnamese population. We're seeing a lot of students come in from the Northern Africa countries - Somalia, Ethiopia - and, of course, the majority of them from Mexico or other countries in Central America.

MORRIS: According to the latest census, only about 40 percent of residents here in Garden City classify as white non-Hispanic. Albert Kyaw, a translator for the district, comes from Myanmar.

ALBERT KYAW: Garden City is the most diverse community here in Kansas. Yes, we have, you know, 27 different languages spoken in the district.

MORRIS: That's 27 languages minimum in a town of 27,000. And these people are busy. Unemployment hovers around 3 percent. City manager Matt Allen says it's an economic system powered by a steady stream of irrigated corn and immigrant labor.

MATT ALLEN: In this region, we pump water out of the ground to grow a tropical plant in the sand hills in mass so that we can feed cattle in mass so that we can kill cattle in mass so that we can distribute beef in mass. And that requires a big workforce. That is the sort of common thread through the economy.

MORRIS: And all those workers producing food that the rest of the country buys bring wealth, stores, services and terrific ethnic restaurants to this remote western Kansas town. And all that, in turn, helps Garden City hang on to workers.

ALLEN: For us, that matters. It's about workforce. It's about do we have enough fuel to run the engine?

MORRIS: It's important to note here that Garden City's success is no accident.

JANICE THOME: Welcome to no frills 1994 pickup.

MORRIS: Sister Janice Thome slides behind the wheel of the faded red Ford pickup truck she uses to haul donated furniture to newcomers. She says Garden City's turning point came in the 1970s when city, business and church leaders debated bringing in a meatpacking plant.

THOME: And they said, if we say no, then Garden City's liable to become one of these ghost towns like many other towns. If we say yes, then we've got a vibrant economy, but then we're going to be bringing in all of, quotes, "those people."

MORRIS: Those people, as in immigrants, mostly poor ones who don't speak English and need significant help getting their footing in a new culture.

THOME: They decided they didn't want to be a ghost town, so they would say yes, and then they said, OK, are we going to count the people that come in then as a blessing or a curse?

MORRIS: Viewing them as a blessing won out. And after a lot of persistence, effort and patience, a pro-immigrant ethos has gradually taken root here. And Ahmed Hassan Ali (ph), a sunny, young Somali meat packer, says he never wants to leave.

AHMED HASSAN ALI: This town, this is so nice. Also the people in this town, they are so great people. We love them. And also they love us, yeah, for sure.

MORRIS: In a way, Garden City offers the same basic deal now that settlers around here embraced in the late 1800s - foreigners moving to a remote part of the country working hard and creating a tight-knit community to call home. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.