From Wild West to High Technology and Higher Education

Ellis County, KS

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It is a county with a Wild West past, a well-educated workforce and very fast Internet speeds. Ellis County, Kansas also has a low cost of living, a low crime rate and low unemployment. As one of the leading oil and gas producing counties in the state, Ellis County is eager to expand its economic base.
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“We’re a diverse community with interstate and rail access. We are in a prime location to support any type of major manufacturing, warehouse and distribution business or any type of business that requires high speed Internet connectivity because we have the capacity to deliver ten gigabits of Internet speed for commercial business,” says Aaron White, executive director of the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development.

Ellis County is situated on Interstate 70, near the junction with U.S. Highway 183. Union Pacific Railroad offers rail access while Hays Regional Airport provides daily jet service to Denver. Ellis County is 268 miles to Kansas City, 339 miles to Denver, 546 miles to Dallas and 776 miles to Chicago.

As of 2015, Ellis County had 29,005 people, some 20,862 of whom live in Hays which is its largest city and the biggest population centre in northwest Kansas. The median household income in Ellis County is $42,487; the median age is 32.1 years, and unemployment was under three percent, as of December 2016. The crime rate remains low.

The Hays Medical Center is the top employer in Ellis County, providing jobs for 1,235 people and healthcare services across the region. Fort Hays State University is the next largest employer in the County, with some 849 staff. Other big employers include Wal-Mart, at 430 personnel, and oil field supply manufacturer Hess Services, at 286.

“Steel manufacturing and fabrication is still a strong core of this community,” says White. “We have a lot of small contract manufacturing job shops here, most of them related to oil and gas. We would love to [retain] that core steel fabrication, metal fabrication business, but [also attract] something outside the oil and gas industry to diversify things a little bit. Warehousing and distribution would be one. We’re on I-70, and from our location, we can reach seventy percent of the U.S. with overnight delivery. So as a distribution centre, we’re an ideal location to serve all the major Midwest metro areas. … I would add, our location makes us a prime spot to manufacture and distribute throughout the Midwest and to the coast,” says White.

White says economic diversification is the biggest challenge facing the county. “In the last few years when the rest of the country was in recession, Ellis County weathered it pretty well. Oil was strong; agriculture was strong. But lately, with oil being depressed, that impacts everybody. So we’re still subject to the ebb and flow of commodity prices, particularly related to oil and gas. But diversifying away from that is definitely something we would like to see … We would like to add some manufacturing jobs on the service side and tech side—white collar type jobs.”

Ellis County is also “looking to tap into the tech industry. Anybody that requires high speed data service, whether a data center or a software programming place,” he continues.

In 2015, Nex-Tech, a local telephone and telecommunications company, launched an ambitious enhanced fiber technology Internet service. Participating homes and businesses could enjoy broadband speeds reaching one gigabit per second (Gbps) which is “up to one hundred times faster than average national broadband speed,” according to the company. As White notes, Nex-Tech can exceed this. In early 2016, Kansas Wesleyan University, just outside of Ellis County, announced that Nex-Tech had set up a ten gigabit connection between campus buildings.

Beyond fast broadband speeds, Ellis County can offer businesses property tax abatements and training programs. State incentives include sales tax exemptions, workforce training grants, state property tax abatements and machinery and equipment tax exemptions.

There is plenty of space to house new businesses. Ellis County has two formal industrial parks “and a number of other areas that are zoned industrial that we’re looking to continue to develop,” says White.

On the academic front, Fort Hays State University has an annual enrolment of around 4,500 students, with another 5,000 students taking online courses. Fort Hays State University was founded in 1902 and features a well-regarded petroleum geologist program and department of informatics. The university also sends professors to China to teach at partner schools in that country. The university has been expanding, adding new classroom buildings and a new residence hall in recent years.

Not only is the presence of so many students a windfall for the local economy, the student population “brings a talent pool we try to tap into and retain,” says White.

“We definitely want to grow industry that will retain more of Fort Hays State grads. A lot of them would like to stay, so want to make sure that we’ve got the type of employment they’re looking for that would let them stay,” says White.

North Central Kansas Technical College (NCK Tech) is the other big academic institution in the county. NCK Tech is based in Beloit, Kansas and has a large satellite campus in Hays. The Hays campus provides courses in welding, nursing, automotive technology, business technology, carpentry and electrical technology.

White calls NCK Tech “a very well-ranked technical school,” with a training center that prepares students for manufacturing positions.

The importance of academic institutions in contemporary Ellis County is in stark contrast to the area’s wild past. The area was home for centuries to Plains Indians, then Fort Hays was built in 1865 and Ellis County was organized two years later. George Armstrong Custer served at Fort Hays at one point and legendary figure Wild Bill Hickcok was briefly a sheriff in the area. Today, Fort Hays is a historic site and popular tourist destination.

“Some of the original buildings still stand there. There are forts all over Kansas. This one was referenced in the movie, Dances with Wolves … Elizabeth Custer said [Hays] was a rough and rowdy place. When you got off the train at Hays, they let the women off on the edge of town so they wouldn’t see how rough and rowdy it was,” says Melissa Dixon, executive director of the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau.

There were 1,336 people in Ellis County in 1870, rising to just under 8,000 people by 1890. Many of the original settlers were German pioneers from the Volga region of Russia. The county’s population rose to 15,907 in 1930 than 21,270 three decades later. At the turn of the millennium, the population was 27,507.

Population growth in Ellis County has been “slow and steady,”—a pace the county leaders are eager to maintain, says White. “The community is projecting one percent growth. I don’t think we want to be a community of 100,000 people.”

Today, Ellis County offers plenty of attractions to families as well as businesses. Hays has the second highest retail ‘pull factor’ in Kansas with well-known chains such as Hobby Lobby, Home Depot and Ashley’s Furniture.

There are roughly ten lakes and state parks in the area, five walking trails, golf courses and a sports complex. Fort Hays State University has several sports teams and brings in interesting speakers, concerts and performances. The county is home to the oldest arts council in the state and a historic rodeo. Community events include a Wild West Festival, Oktoberfest, Memorial Polka Fest and FrostFest. There is a symphony orchestra in Hays and strong public library and school systems.

The cost of living in the city of Hays—determined by factoring the price of housing, utilities, groceries and fuel—was nearly twenty percent less than the U.S. average. The median value of a house or condominium in the county in 2013 was $149,902.

There is a newly launched Ellis County Housing Rehab program in the region that offers loans for people willing to fix up properties to sell to families. The program is designed to enhance the older housing stock in the community and provide mid-priced homes for single-owner occupants.

Winters are relatively mild compared to more northern states. Ellis County is windy—as is most of Kansas—but that is a benefit, in that the county is a perfect place for wind farms, says White. “We’re one of the top three states, I believe, in terms of wind power generation.”

Solar energy is another fledgling industry in the area. A local electric cooperative built a solar farm to provide clean energy into the grid. “So many companies today want to tie into the green energy revolution. They want to be more green. So if that’s something they’re looking for, that’s definitely something we can deliver,” states White.

In summary, White has a very simple point to convey: “The biggest thing, we really want to make sure we get message out that [Ellis County] is a great location to live, work and play. We want to make sure everybody knows what we know,” he says.

August 24, 2017, 12:44 AM EDT

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