HUMBOLDT — He wasn’t exactly a knight in shining armor, but Ray Maloney definitely put a spark in discussions Tuesday night at the second of a two-day symposium sponsored by Thrive Allen County and B&W Trailer Hitches on how to make Allen County more prosperous.
A common theme from the talks was how to fight the decades-old trend of a declining population base, to which better housing and more jobs were the typical replies.
Maloney, LaHarpe, proposed the area concentrate on growing a building trades industry starting with its high school students.
A hands-on kind of guy, Maloney said he feared today’s youth has “lost sight of how to do things except sit behind electronics.”
Maloney, 53, is involved with two businesses, Ray’s Metal Depot in LaHarpe, with five employees, and Midwest Production Solutions, an oilfield drilling equipment operation north of Moran, at the site of the former Klein Tools, with 10 employees.
The first he built from the ground up after a 10-year stint with the former Klein Tools. The second, he started with partners Chuck Shafer, Iola, and Mike Lane of rural Gas.
The Midwest Solutions site has four “good-sized” buildings, of which only one is being used, he said. Maloney has offered local school districts the use of the other buildings to set up shop for a building trades program.
“I’m willing to throw $500,000 at this idea,” he said, referring to the buildings’ value.
“I’ve got the ball in the air, but I’m waiting for someone to step under it.”
Discussions with area superintendents of schools have been very “receptive,” but at the same time dispiriting, Maloney said. “They’re very interested, but don’t have any money to take such a program forward,” he said of both Jack Koehn, superintendent of Iola’s USD 257 school, and Ken McWhirter, superintendent for Marmaton Valley.
Maloney envisions the program would allow students to build a complete home at the rural Moran site which could then be moved anywhere in the region.
He also envisions one of his buildings, complete with three-phase wiring and full utilities, to be the perfect venue for the instruction of the use of CNC machinery used to design and make industrial parts.
Outside companies looking to locate to Allen County have been frustrated by the lack of a trained work force, he said.
“We need people to learn building and industrial trades,” he said.
Maloney also contends the area needs to concentrate on building its own industries, rather than looking for outside interests to locate here.
“They have no allegiance to here. Look at Herff Jones pulling up stakes,” he said.
“I’ll do whatever I can to get this off the ground.”
THE WRAP-UP session showed an extensive wish list compiled by participants the previous night naming what they think would help pave the way to a more prosperous future.
Some were big-ticket — a recreation center, parks and infrastructure — but others could be solved with a little elbow grease.
In Moran, for example, residents said repainting the telephone poles lining Cedar Street helps keep a tradition alive. The white paint extends about “Cuppy high” — or about 5 feet, the height of the town’s diminutive matron Nelda Cuppy.
A long-term goal for Moran residents is to develop a walking trail, they said.
Humboldt residents said a better coordinated system of volunteer services is a ready-to-go goal. Long-term, they’d like to improve their streets and sidewalks and work to attract more businesses to their downtown square.
Opening the school gyms on a free basis to the Iola public was listed as well as making Allen Community College a tobacco-free campus. Long-term goals include a public restroom for downtown Iola and a bridge placed over South Washington Avenue to connect with the trail system being developed farther to the south.
LaHarpe would benefit immediately if it received an updo, residents said, including more streetlights, new paint jobs, more parks and more activities.
“It’s hard for a town the size of LaHarpe to pull off a day-long event,” said resident David Lee. “We’re looking to have a shortened version, maybe something that lasts a few hours.”
After only one day the community of Elsmore could toot its horn. At Monday’s meeting residents complained of lacking a storm warning system. By Tuesday, city and county officials had the ball rolling to have one installed.
“THIS IS NOT planning for the sake of planning,” said David Toland, executive director of Thrive.
With the help of Thrive, each community is to devise an “action plan” that will ultimately settle on a couple of pilot projects.
Funding will come in part from the Kansas Health Foundation, but also requires buy-in from the communities themselves.
“It’s not a free ride,” Toland said, “but designed for you to have some skin in the game as well.”