By CRISTINA JANNEY
Housing was among the top concerns a group of Hays residents raised during an informal conversation group known as Civic Dinners.
About 80 cities across the country will participating in the Civic Dinners program in the month of October. Hays conducted its first set of group discussions on Tuesday night at Gella’s. Another Civic Dinner will be from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 7, also at Gella’s. You can register at www.civicdinners.com/tlc-hays. Please bring money to purchase your dinner.
The discussion centered around several basic questions with each person in attendance given a few minutes to answer. Those participating Tuesday included, Melissa Dixon, Hays CVB, host; Mike Morley, Midwest Energy; Errol Wuertz, Landmark Realty; Donnette Noble, FHSU; Grady Dixon, FHSU; Tom Lippert, FHSU; Chad Meitner, TMP; Aubree Broyles, Nex-Tech; Ruth Deines, Friends of Hays Public Library; and Cristina Janney, Hays Post/Eagle Radio.
Meitner said he had sticker shock when he and his family were searching for housing.
Broyles also said she had friends who were struggling with the real estate market in Hays.
Wuertz, a longtime Hays resident and real estate agent, said he had a family that has been looking for a home for four months, and they have not been able to find anything they want to buy.
As he talks to developers, Wuertz said, they tell him it is hard to build in Hays. In a larger community, a developer might build a whole development, but in Hays the same developer might only be able to build and sell one house at a time. Developers can build a lower prices if they can purchase materials in bulk and build more houses at once.
Grady Dixon said he would like to see more work done to renovate and beautify existing homes in the city.
“If you see a single house on a block renovated,” he said, “it can change the character of the whole block.”
Wuertz noted Manhattan has a rental inspection program, but no such program exists in Hays.
The group also discussed how the lack of housing affects the ability for employers in Hays to recruit and retain employees. Wuertz said the First Care Clinic board is trying to recruit a dentist but is having difficulty getting someone to come to Hays.
Morley said Hays has a brain drain. Hays’ senior population is increasing as retirees move into town from more rural areas to be closer to services such as HaysMed. More babies are also being born in Hays. However, Hays is seeing a domestic migration out of the community of young to middle-age adults.
To keep Hays vibrant, Morley said Hays needs to stop that migration.
The group discussed a couple of quality of life issues that were essential to stop the exodus. One of those issues is schools. Several group members said they were disappointed two school bond issues have failed in the last three years.
Morley said he moved his family to Hays over places like Wichita and Dallas because of the quality of the schools.
“We pay $40,000 to $50,000 per year to FHSU to use their football field,” he said. “The first bond issue had a new turf field. We could have paid for that two times over in what we are paying FHSU. How many ankles and knees have been destroyed on that field. Hays and TMP could share a field if only people would look to the future.
“We could have paid 1.5 percent when interest rates were low, but now we can pay 4 percent. We end up paying more for less.”
Other quality of life issues the group discussed were the need for more shopping, diversity in dining options, a new senior center, a local architecture firm and a homeless shelter.
Melissa Dixon expressed frustration the community dissolved its beautification committee. She said the north and south entrances to the city don’t tell the whole story of Hays. People often don’t get to see downtown or the other things to do in Hays because of that. They never make it off the Interstate, she said.
As the CVB director, she is constantly fighting the perception there is nothing to do in Hays.
Deines, a transplant from Lawrence, said she struggles to learn about news and events in Hays.
The theme for the night was “What makes your city lovable?” so the group also talked about aspects of Hays they love or bring them joy.
Noble, who moved to Hays three months ago to work at FHSU, said she appreciates her three-minute commute. When she lived outside of Chicago, she spent 20 minutes on a train every work day.
“I think people have been engaging me, and there are some very joyful people here,” she said. “For a city so small in a town that is supposedly in the middle of nowhere, there is an art community. A week ago, I want to Rockalooa, and loved that. I love the diversity here.”
Grady Dixon also said he appreciated the city’s design and the ease of getting around.
“The city is functional in its design,” he said. “We are a small city, but there are other cities our size or smaller that have traffic.”
Several of the group members, including Meitner, said they appreciated how giving and involved people are in the community.
Lippert said he loves Hays, but residents need to continue to address quality of life issues.
“We need to have foresight to be good stewards of our future,” he said.
Several members of the group expressed frustration to the reaction to the Vine Street roundabouts and the bike path path project before that, both of which they said they supported.
Other aspects of Hays the group thought made it a great place to live were the dog park, Hays Public Library, a vibrant downtown, the Downtown Hays Market and the community’s diversity.
In addition to an eight-person adult group, seven children participated in their own discussion group.
This group include Brianna Griffith, ninth grade, Hays High School; Tyra Loffredi, ninth grade, Hays High School; Gilda Torres-Allen, ninth grade, Hays High School; Tayshaun Birch, 11th grade, Hays High School; Sage Talkington, seventh grade, homeschooled; Brooks Dixon, third grade, Lincoln Elementary; and Delia Dixon, sixth grade, Hays Middle School.
Their group was facilitated by Jane Talkington, assistant professor of management at FHSU.
According to Talkington, the youth said what they love about Hays is the different personalities of the people of Hays, its rich history, their curly hair that got curlier and wilder in the wind, people are nice, people are good, the high school teachers are great (special shout out to Ms. Codi Fenwick, debate teacher), the famous people from Hays area (like Dennis Hopper) and the fabulous and kid-friendly public library downtown.
They also said they were proud of Jana’s Campaign.
They saw infrastructure of public facilities, such as the leaky high school building as a community challenge.
The students said they wanted a bookstore, skating rink, ice hockey rink, more stable weather and equality. They also wanted the culture of Hays to value the individual and eliminate discrimination based on weight or color of skin.