Flint Hills residents challenged to answer: Who are we?
“Flint Hills Frontiers—what a great way to find out what other locals think is most important and what they hold dear,” said Mike McCartney, executive director of the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce after a Flint Hills community visioning meeting held in late March, near his home in Pawhuska, “and it’s amazing to me to see how much residents of the Flint Hills really do have in common.”
McCartney, a longtime Flint Hills resident, businessman and entrepreneur, participated in one of the community-level conversations that have been making their way across the Flint Hills region of Kansas and Oklahoma over the past months. In the coming weeks, the Flint Hills Frontiers Regional Planning project swings north to Junction City on April 22, Manhattan on April 23, and Emporia on April 30. Prior community visioning meetings have already taken place in Marysville and Arkansas City in Kansas as well as Pawhuska in Oklahoma. One more meeting in Morris County, Kan., is still in the works.
“Regional planning is all about seeking a strong vision, through community input, based on our commonly held values and goals,” said Jeff Adams, regional planner for the Flint Hills Regional Council, the non-profit council of governments leading the Flint Hills Frontiers project. “In these times of rural struggles juxtaposed with rapid growth in the cities of the Flint Hills, we need to find ways to work together as a whole, strengthening our assets and existing efforts, while looking to attract new opportunities. The tall grass prairie binds us together in this very unique place and offers us each common ground from which to grow. I believe this plan will create real results and offer real solutions, but it will take everyone’s involvement.”
The Flint Hills Frontiers Regional Planning Project is a 19 county regional effort involving private citizens, non-profit organizations, state agencies and local governments. The resulting regional partnership is intended to increase economic vitality, provide cultural and natural resource protection, while respecting and strengthening our existing communities, from the metropolitan areas such as Manhattan and small towns from across the region, to the rural farming and ranching families, as well as Native American nations like the Kaw and Osage. In the end, a citizen-led regional vision will then be utilized as the driving force in attracting and coordinating more services, opportunities, and interconnections throughout the entire Flint Hills region.
The meetings are intended to bring people of all ages and backgrounds together for a warm meal and conversations they might not have experienced before.
“I sat at the same table with some very talented and hard-working people who live right here in my community. We never slowed down enough to interact until just now. I wish I had sooner,” said photographer Tom Bauer after the Frontiers Community Visioning Meeting in Arkansas City. “If we are going to have a shot at defining a future our kids can be proud of, we need to have real conversations like this. It doesn’t get any more to the point—creating something bigger than all of us requires active citizen participation.”
A rare geographic wonder, the Flint Hills is full of rolling prairie hills and valleys, a variety of wildlife, and independent communities full of history and character. The fabric of the landscape and the communities of the Flint Hills has shifted in recent times. Up until the end of the 20th century, farms, small towns and railroads were prevalent. Now rural areas face dramatic aging and decline as young people migrate to the larger urban areas and do not come back. The automobile has replaced the horses and trains, allowing populations to become more mobile and services more concentrated. One example is the corridor along Interstate 70 corridor, which includes Wamego, Manhattan, Fort Riley, and Junction City. This area has now gained enough population to be designated a metropolitan area and has set records for growth. A vision for how to handle these cycles of decline and growth will be important as the region moves forward.
“The key here is preservation of the amazing tallgrass prairie ecosystem and honoring the agricultural heritage of our region. Then the focus is on steady economic development and supporting all communities so they can thrive in a changing world,” said Larry Patton, Flint Hills land owner and resident. “Creating common goals and understanding has the potential to help the Flint Hills achieve great things. All of us have a stake in the future of the Flint Hills. The Frontiers Community Visioning Meetings represent a huge opportunity to positively shape that future by finding our own voice to lay out real ideas and solutions. If you care about the Flint Hills, you should take part.”
For more information on the April 22, 23 and 30 Frontiers Community Visioning Meetings in Junction City, Manhattan and Emporia go to www.flinthillsfrontiers.org/rsvp or the Flint Hills Frontiers Regional Planning Project, visit www.flinthillsfrontiers.org, or for those who wish to participate online can join the regional conversation at www.forum.flinthillsfrontiers.org, or like the Frontiers on Facebook at www.facebook.com/flinthillsfrontiers , follow @FrontiersPlan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FrontiersPlan, or call planning headquarters at 855-785-3472.