May 22, 2022 Supporting Manhattan-area entrepreneurs, businesses, events

Imagining Regionalism with Christy Rodriguez

Christy Rodriguez, an urban planner hired to lead the vision and implementation of the Region Reimagined project, stood near the entrance desk of the brightly lit Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, welcoming visitors into her office. Inside, six chairs surrounded an ovular conference table that dominates the room, perhaps as a symbol of how Rodriguez will spend much of her time as the Region Reimagined program director. Two floor-to-ceiling windows parallel one another, one along the interior of the office, giving passersby a transparent look into her conversations with community members, the other opening out onto Poyntz Avenue with a view of the Riley County Courthouse.

Rodriguez rolled her chair from her desk along the wall, paper in hand, to take notes of her own. Her wide eyes were already listening. Celebratory snapshots from Manhattan’s recent history hung in tiles along the wall opposite her: a Kansas State football game, a homecoming parade, a flood. No family photos sat on the desk behind her. “I just arrived four days ago,” she said then laughed, referencing her family’s move from Fort Worth, Texas, to Manhattan. She glances around her office at the sparse decoration. “My family pictures are still in my phone.”

 Photo by Wrenn Pacheco
Photo by Wrenn Pacheco

Strange Aberrations in Manhattan’s Past

Tracy Anderson remembers the sense of foreboding that hung over Flint Hills residents in 1998. “I was working in an architecture firm here in Manhattan, and I remember there were all these conversations within the business community and in our office about Big Red One shipping out. The school district had to close down two elementary schools, and this got the community really stirred up because nobody wants their neighborhood schools to close. We had to let one or two people go from the office as well. We just didn’t have the work to support them.”

The era Anderson referred to was known to most of the United States as a prosperous one. With the dot-com and real estate bubbles of the late 1990s and early 2000s, wealth, growth and fortune flourished in most communities throughout America. During this exact time period, however, the Flint Hills region limped along, experiencing a net population growth of only eight people.

The ballooning national economy rendered itself unsustainable, and the nearly decade-long event referred to as “The Great Recession” followed, with dismal job growth and a loss of the opportunity for wealth creation available only a few years before. Yet this next decade of Flint Hills history once again defied the behavior of the rest of the country. Between 2005 and 2008, the region thrived as approximately 11,500 jobs were created, and the community saw a population growth of over 13,000 people.

The cause of the strange aberration from national trends was, in short, troop movements in and out of Fort Riley. From 1996 to 2005, when national momentum and growth juxtaposed regional stagnation, the First Infantry Division left Fort Riley to serve in Germany for a peacekeeping mission. Conversely, when the First Infantry Division returned to the area in 2006, the immediate result was population and job growth, even while the rest of the country began plodding toward recovery from recession.

Tracy Anderson leaned back in his chair, gratefully recalling the fortuitous timing of his decision to start Anderson Knight Architects in 2002, only three years before the return of Big Red One to the area. “I didn’t realize it then, but my timing was impeccable in that regard.” Comparing the two decades to one another, Anderson reflected, “People had not realized up to then what an impact Fort Riley had on the area. They know now.”

Strong Foundations Support a Sustainable Future

In 2017, the Manhattan Area Chamber of Commerce commissioned Market Street Research, an Austin-based provider of community development and strategic planning, to create an assessment of the region, as well as a collaborative plan for the way forward, a project now called Region Reimagined. Born from the hopes of expanding on the historic relationships with Kansas State University and Fort Riley, Region Reimagined articulated a path beyond the growth and development anomalies created by these institutions. A 40-person steering committee comprised of community influencers and business leaders now advises Region Reimagined with Rodriguez at the helm as program director.

Examining census and research data of Pottawatomie, Riley and Geary counties to create a larger picture of the assets and needs of the region, Market Street talked with local citizens via online polls and focus groups to learn more specific concerns and struggles, then reported progress and final results to the steering committee.

Market Street summarized their findings, writing:

“The Community Assessment revealed that Greater Manhattan has experienced a stable economy that buffered the region from the Great Recession but depends too heavily on public sector employment and unpredictable troop movement trends and student enrollment fluctuations.”

 Photo by Josh Hicks
Photo by Josh Hicks

Community Stories and Strategies for Growth

Market Street’s research revealed four core narratives of the community. The first two stories that emerged emphasized the resounding theme of the region’s reliance upon Kansas State University and Fort Riley for population and economic growth, as well as the heavy dependence on public-sector employment. In particular, the economic impact that Fort Riley has on the Flint Hills region cannot be overestimated.

The third narrative that emerged was a desire to diversify the region’s economic development through a combination of research and entrepreneurship. As this approach is already employed by larger universities, such as Johns Hopkins and Stanford, the report suggested expanding upon research already being done by Kansas State University to build local businesses and create additional jobs around new discoveries and patents developed by the university.

The fourth core story from Market Street’s research suggested that while the region’s quality of life is attractive, it is likely unsustainable without a diversified economy. Indeed, the city of Manhattan regularly receives awards for the lifestyle it affords its residents, such as “#2 Best Place to Live in America” by and “One of the Ten Best College Towns in America” by American Institute for Economic Research. Nevertheless, the ability to maintain this atmosphere of well-being for its citizens depends on the decisions to expand opportunities and strengthen a sense of identity and stability in addition to its historic support systems.

In response to the four areas of growth potential, Market Street proposed a multitude of community planning and development strategies, which the steering committee clarified and voted into an order by priority. The final strategic plan outlined nine strategies to be launched and implemented over the next five years.

Advised by a steering committee and led by Rodriguez, each of the nine Region Reimagined strategies will be developed and implemented by an assigned workgroup, composed of leaders and influencers active in the strategy’s specific industry. Rodriguez’s challenge will be, at least in part, to encourage the strategy-informed visions of the workgroups while connecting the work to initiatives already in progress in the community. “I want to get to know the region and identify the partners out there who can help. There are a lot of people who are doing great things. One of my talents is bringing them together.”

Rodriguez understands the location of her position is at the intersection of many projects and efforts at varying stages of progress and implementation, many of which precede her work in the region. “My role [with R2] is to track progress, network, communicate, provide support through partnership, and to understand what success is for each goal. I’ll be looking for common goals and common initiatives.”

Stepping into her new role, Rodriguez sees her role as program director as one of relationship building first. “I am here to take time to listen and learn and what drives each group or individual. Once you understand that, you can start building those bridges and connections and identify partnerships. Building relationships is a key component and people need to be able to trust, and sometimes that takes time.”

 Photo by Wrenn Pacheco
Photo by Wrenn Pacheco

“Not just an urban planner”

Despite only recently finalizing her move to the area, her 8- and 5-year-old daughters arrived in mid-July to play soccer with Sporting Kaw Valley. “I didn’t even know if I had the job yet, but we wanted to be here.” Her husband, Adrian Rodriguez, joined the Kansas State University staff as the first associate vice president for student life of diversity and multicultural student affairs in December of 2017. “I am happy to have our family reunited,” she said, smiling.

“My husband and I are both Texas natives, but we got married in Wichita and worked there for five years.” She paused, apparently pleased to find herself back in Kansas raising her young family. “We used to live in Old Town when I was working with the city there. I loved Old Town,” she said while smiling with a twinge of nostalgia. “I worked with the Sedgwick County Planning Department there, and we did some neighborhood revitalization work along Douglas Avenue. I was part of launching the project, and I am very proud of the work they’ve done there.” She relaxed deeper into her chair, a soft-spoken confidence in her voice.

Rodriguez’s diverse resume elevated her to the top of the list during the hiring process for Region Reimagined program director. In addition to successful urban planning and revitalization in Texas and Kansas communities, she boasts experience in grant management for communities 50,000 and below, and in Fort Worth, she managed a $20 million budget in her role as the program administrator for the Fort Worth Police Department. “I really grew in the Fort Worth role from being an urban planner to having a certain skill set.” Rodriguez recalled. “In Fort Worth, I was doing more than urban planning. I was learning contracts, technologies, logistics, and understanding how to work with different cultures and personalities.” She noted one of the aspects of the Fort Worth position prepared her for her role as program director for Region Reimagined. “The interpersonal side was a huge part of my role in the police department.”

Wayne Sloan, president of BHS Construction, took part in the interview process for the Region Reimagined program director. “When we interviewed Christy, she was very articulate and focused on what she did. What swayed me the most was the diversity of her resume. She was not only a planner but had experience as a grant writer, and Region Reimagined is going to need to be funded. Our hope was she may able to go out and find ways to pay for this so our communities don’t have to.”

Sloan added, “Region Reimagined is partly urban planning, but it touches all parts of our community, and the person in her role needs to be adaptable. She was able to take her abilities and experiences and adapt them in each of her previous roles. Her work in the Fort Worth Police Department really stood out, where she managed over 20 people and worked with a 20 million dollar annual budget. She was able to survive the role, push their initiatives forward, and be seen as a strategic player and leader in that environment.”

Matt Crocker, CEO of SPS Companies, also participated in the search for the program director and expressed confidence that Christy was the right choice. “A big motivation for me was the passion she voiced for making a community better. That passion was evident in her past experiences, and in particular, what she expressed as the aspect that she enjoyed the most in her past jobs. Christy was quickly able to connect the dots and present implementation steps that recognized the need to involve and engage a broad group of individuals.”

Rodriguez’ vision for the region springs from a love for her work and an appreciation for small communities developed in grant management for communities of populations 50,000 and below.

“In a small community, there is an appreciation for the individual character of the community and historic preservation. The icons of the community are celebrated a lot more,” Rodriguez observed.

“A small community can more easily celebrate what makes us unique. In Manhattan and the Flint Hills, there are certain things that make us different, and we want to identify what those things are. Kansas State and Fort Riley are huge drivers, but they are not the only drivers. The agricultural community is going to be a huge part of who we are working with; we’ll need to make sure that initiatives are not only supporting cities but whole counties.” She added, “From a regional perspective, we want to determine how it all goes together and how we can work together to make improvements and be the best that we can be.”

Why Weren’t We Here 10 Years Ago?

Rodriguez said the decision to leave Fort Worth to live in the Flint Hills was a difficult one at first. “We were very involved in our community in Fort Worth. We loved the church we were part of, and my oldest daughter was part of a Spanish immersion program. I was a Girl Scout leader too. We were very established there, but we felt there are things happening in this region where we would have a better quality of life. When we moved here, I thought ‘why weren’t we here 10 years ago, with the schools and everything the region has to offer.’ It’s a great environment to raise a family.”

A young, diverse, and educated couple with elementary-aged children, Christy and her husband Adrian reflect a larger trend of young families making the Flint Hills their home. USD 383 enrollment reports show increased numbers of young families in the area, with a growing number of students each year for the past several years. In 2018, enrollment increased again by 127 students throughout the Manhattan-Ogden schools.

Rod Harms, president of Civitas Group and long-time Manhattan resident, noted his own observation about the trend in young families in the area. “I’ve noticed more and more young families, both at church and in my work around town. This has been reflected in enrollment numbers as well, despite the decreased enrollment of Kansas State,” he reported.

Like Rodriguez today, the benefits of the community are also what brought Rod and his young family to Manhattan over 20 years ago. “We wanted to raise our kids here. Seeing the young families coming to Manhattan gives me hope for Manhattan’s future.”

These developments are encouraging as two of the nine strategies outlined by Region Reimagined prioritized strategies aimed at attracting and retaining talent in the region. While the movement of young families to the region suggests this goal may already be underway, Market Street’s community conversations revealed an undercurrent of dynamics that prevent a majority of young people from enjoying the benefits of the area. Commonly named barriers were difficulty locating affordable housing and childcare, as well as a lack of opportunities for upward career mobility and a trend among millennials looking for a welcoming, ethnically diverse living and working environments. These obstacles reflect Market’s Street’s finding that without a diversified economy, the quality of life the region offers is likely unsustainable.

Region Reimagined creates a unique opportunity to give up-and-coming leaders who remain in the area a voice in the conversation for how to solve some of these challenges and attract other young professionals like themselves to the region. Established community leaders like Harms believe initiatives like Region Reimagined are needed to raise up new leadership for Manhattan.

“One of the most important roles of Region Reimagined is engaging young leaders with what is happening in the city. People are talking and thinking about [Region Reimagined] now,” Harms said. “This may be the process that introduces the new generation of leadership into Manhattan.”

City Commissioner Jerred McKee, a young professional, Kansas State graduate, and a member of a Region Reimagined workgroup, recalled how he remained in the area because of leadership opportunities he gained immediately after college. After working with an election campaign, he said, “I felt so energized. It was this trigger for me that a 20-something could make a difference. I decided I had lived here for five years at that time, and I didn’t want to uproot and go somewhere else.” He laughed, “I have just never stopped having fun here, frankly. Couple that with great opportunities in my career and I have never had a reason to leave.”

The workgroups collaborating to make the strategies of Region Reimagined a reality are one of the ways in which new leaders are coming together to share their vision for the area and work to see it become reality. Sheila Ellis-Glasper, owner of SEG Media Collective located in Manhattan and an African American business owner, is a member of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation workgroup who sees her involvement with the initiative as an open door to influence the region for an upcoming generation of diverse young people entering the workforce and looking to make the Flint Hills their home.

She initially hesitated about returning to the area to start a business and raise her ethnically diverse, young family, admitting she was unsure about the success she could have as she had not seen many other successful minority business owners in the area. After spending three years working at Kansas State University and leaving to start her own business, however, she and her family purchased a home and made the decision to stay and invest in the community.

“We chose to stay in Manhattan, because my business has grown, and overall, the climate for small business success is very supportive here.”

Ellis-Glasper hopes that her role in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation workgroup will offer her an opportunity to create a shift in the understanding and practice of diversity. “My hopes are for Manhattan and K-State to become more proactive rather than reactive when it comes to diversity. That starts with thinking about what diversity truly looks like in our community and bringing all the voices to the table.” Her experience with business and entrepreneurship in other areas informs her recommendations for how the Flint Hills region could develop diversity. “The choice is up to us to make a more inclusive environment for our children and the future of Manhattan.”

McKee noted that diversity and inclusivity are also high values for him personally, and he sees this reflected in city leadership as well. “The diversity in city leadership is improving. The established leaders here are as accepting as me.” McKee is hopeful about opening opportunities for diversity in the region and said the progress toward this goal is already evident. “This area has several smaller communities within the larger community. While that creates challenges, the upside is no matter your background, you can find a niche here.”

In her work as Region Reimagined program director, Rodriguez hopes to communicate the value of inclusion by reiterating the importance of listening. “We want everyone to know they are invited and open the doors to participation. We want anyone who has questions to understand that we are here in support. We will communicate that the door is always open.”

Nurturing Homegrown Talent

As Ellis-Glasper noted, her decision to stay in Manhattan and grow her business reflected her experience of the region as supportive to growing business. In his city leadership role, Jerred McKee felt homegrown talent tends to value the community and wants to invest in both small and significant ways. “Companies like 502 are homegrown talent giving back to the community,” McKee said.

“When I was touring their new space for the opening, I noticed a sign in the conference room that says, ‘Nonprofits can use our conference room for free. Talk to Blade to learn more. We’d love to have you here.’ That was a moment where I realized that businesses like 502 are the kinds of entities that we want to get behind because they have a level of buy-in that we need.”

Some companies, such as The Alms Group, a local real estate agency, have even designed their business model with philanthropy in mind. Still a young business, The Alms Group has donated thousands of dollars to local schools. Their mission statement reads, “The Alms Group puts the power of change back in your hands, supporting causes important to you while still offering service that puts your needs first. At The Alms Group, we believe when our neighbors are deeply rooted and thriving, so are we.”

Defining Who We Want to Be

Many of the participants in Region Reimagined are hopeful for what it can accomplish. Of the work, McKee said, “Region Reimagined has incorporated the aspects of creating a community and sense of place here to help people want to stay here and grow the community. According to research, millennials choose a place before they find a job. So we need to help create community.”

More than what Region Reimagined can do for the Flint Hills and its citizens, the initiative represents a moment in time, a shift of leadership, and an opportunity to define the Flint Hills region beyond its historic relationships and support systems. Tracy Anderson observed, “In terms of a city’s history, Manhattan is a teenager, leaning on familiar relationships with Kansas State University and Fort Riley. We have an opportunity at this moment to step out and determine who we want to be.”

Sarah Siders is a freelance writer, author and small business coach who specializes in leadership and healthy relationships.

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