One way the pandemic changed our lives seems clear enough already: Many people can work from anywhere now. I am writing this column, for instance, on an airplane, coming back from visiting my in-laws in south Texas. While we were there for the weekend, I handled some logistics of the Riley County spelling bee. I handled a newsroom issue while we crossed a bridge over the Rio Grande.
There’s a substantial potential upside for Manhattan, in my opinion.
Let’s start with what we’ve known for many years: Lots of K-State students would prefer to stay here after graduation. They leave because there aren’t enough jobs for them — so they end up at engineering firms, architecture offices or banks in Kansas City, Denver and Dallas.
But that’s the thing: They don’t really have to work there. They can work here.
They can stay in an apartment near campus or buy a home on the west side of town. They can earn those Dallas wages on their laptops and headphones, while paying Manhattan expenses. My guess is that’s a hellvua good trade-off.
Plus they can catch the midweek basketball game, go to Rock-A-Belly beforehand. They can still dial up Pizza Shuttle; they can also branch out a little, maybe catch a McCain show, maybe check into what’s new at the Manhattan Arts Center, maybe volunteer at the Breadbasket. Hey, maybe subscribe to the local paper, start to figure out where this community is coming from, where it’s going to.
I recognize that some people will still prefer to live in an urban environment, especially in their 20s. That’s fine; the rattle and hum of a big city can be alluring, at least for awhile. Been there, done that.
But all those surveys done by the Chamber of Commerce over the years have told us that there are many who’d rather stay here, and big-city employers now are increasingly making that possible. In fact, my sense is that the Chamber and the city government could encourage that trend as a pretty low-cost economic development program, assuming that we do in fact want to keep those young people here.
There are tradeoffs, because there always are. If it’s a big trend, it will have the effect of inflating wages and driving up rent and housing prices, but those are far better problems to have than the opposite. The entire rest of the state of Kansas would kill for those problems; to me, the tradeoff is a big win.
I have no particular insight into how to encourage such a trend, but I suppose a reasonable place to start would be to ask questions of the young people on the verge of graduation, the young people who’ve stayed and their contemporaries who’ve left. Listen intently, and figure out what could make a difference.
We’ve got a shot that we’ve never really had before. Now’s the time to take advantage.