This article was originally published in the Hutchinson News on October 10, 2015

Happy in Hutch: Chamber survey shows small town life still holds big appeal with residents, and most 'love' it here

by John Green



Of nearly 600 people who responded to a Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce survey about why they live in Hutchinson – or don’t – the vast majority had positive attitudes about the community.

Of the 562 people who submitted responses to the online survey, 89 percent lived in Hutchinson and 87 percent worked here, according to a report released by the chamber.

Most of the respondents who do not live in the city cited a desire to live in the country or a smaller community, rather than issues with the city. The majority of those still live within the county.

Only 5 percent stated they live in or near a bigger city, which was about the only surprise in the survey responses, said Jason Van Sickle, founder of Kansas Rural Housing Coalition and one of those conducting the study on behalf of the chamber.

“There’s a lot of anecdotal opinion that Hutchinson competes with Maize, and that people chose to live in Maize but work in Hutchinson,” Van Sickle said. “We didn’t find any. If they didn’t live in Hutch, most wanted to live in the country or just outside the city. There was no evidence they’re living in Maize or the larger metropolitan area. Even when you look at the average commute to work, it was right in line with area small towns.”

Happy here

The survey found that almost 46 percent of the people living in Hutchinson who responded grew up here, with another 37 percent here for a job or with a spouse.

Almost 19 percent said they “love living in Hutchinson,” while 49 percent called it “a good place to live.” About 28 percent said they expect to move eventually, but only 5 percent – or 26 people – stated they don’t enjoy living here and “plan to move as soon as I can.”

On quality of life, two-thirds of respondents said it had improved or not changed since they moved here, though 32 percent, or 181 people, said it had declined. In specific comments submitted by some survey-takers, low wages, drug problems and poor housing conditions in some neighborhoods were all cited multiple times.

“I think there’s a pretty positive vibe among the people that live in the community, and that optimism far outweighed any concern or criticism,” Van Sickle said. “People have some thoughts on how things can be improved. … But the key things were that they like the schools and how you take care of your youth and what opportunities are provided.”

More restaurants?

“One of the big things is, if you look at what survey participants said they see as needs here, they’re all connected to the economic development side of the program: retail and restaurant development,” said Hutchinson/Reno County Chamber of Commerce President Jason Ball.

Those venues continue to develop and “more is coming as the mall comes along,” Ball said. “Some of the development being seen is a manifestation of this market being under-served compared to what it could be,” he said. “As you see the mall continue to execute a plan for redevelopment, as businesses pop up along 17th and K-61, it’s serving an under-served market and we need it.”

However, it requires developing a solid economic base of other than service industries to support continued expansion of the service industries, he said.

“If you have too much of that happen (restaurant and retail expansion) without having economic expansion to under-gird it, you’re just moving business around, with businesses opening and closing, instead of new growth from economic opportunity,” Ball said. “That causes a lot of business churn and that type of thing is painful.”

The economic support comes primarily from business or industry that produce products locally that in turn are sold outside the region or state, and thus draw dollars from outside in.

Jobs and taxes

Besides retail and entertainment, cited as lacking by 70 and 66 percent of respondents, respectively, some 53 percent of people noted a need for more diverse employment options.

“The diversity of employment opportunity is something we’ve been about for a long time, and we’ll continue to double-down on how we approach economic development,” Ball said. “The more successful we are in recruiting companies to add a presence here or assist local businesses with expanding here, that increase in diversity of opportunity for people is going to happen.”

One theme not anticipated but that reoccurred during comments and discussions was a concern about the level of city and county taxes, a summary of the survey responses noted.

Organizers recommended the chamber do more research on the specific attitudes and concerns of citizens in Hutchinson and Reno County, with regard to the issue of taxation and related municipal government spending.

Housing

There were multiple questions in the survey about housing, which community leaders have recognized as an ongoing challenge.

The majority of survey respondents, though most owned homes, found a lack of affordable and quality rental housing as a challenge for the community, while nearly a third cited a lack of quality and affordable homes for sale.

“Everyone recognizes these are long-term issues and we are beginning to wrestle with them,” Ball said. “The Community Foundation, United Way and city have been good partners. But we need to be careful with how we proceed. Anything that adds costs to new housing development or refurbishment of existing housing will slow the process down.”

He cited discussion about needing more sidewalks in Hutchinson as such an issue.

Survey demographics

Despite the vast majority of respondents being from Hutchinson, and thus providing limited insight from non-residents, Van Sickle said he believed the demographics of survey were “spot-on in terms of the population … since we had a random sampling, made it open to the public, and got diversity in terms of age, gender and income.”

“For the questions we were trying to answer, we got a good set of responses,” he said. “There will always be questions left unanswered.”

The initial purpose of the survey was to research reasons given by Hutchinson and Reno County employees as to why they chose to live within the community or in another community outside of the city/county.

After completing preliminary research, the study’s scope was expanded to explore the general level of community satisfaction, how people perceived the community and ideas for making it better.

Besides the 33-question online survey, responses were explored more in depth with an eight-person focus group.

The report on the survey results can be found at:http://hutch.news/h2bfex.