What one change would you make to Newton to make it succeed?
I’ve been asking a question recently to people far smarter than myself.
It’s sparked a lot of discussion and debate.
And three times I’ve gotten the same answer.
If they could change one thing, it would be the attitude of city residents.
My respondees were addressing the same huge chip on the shoulder that I see with some residents. This chip presents itself in conversation, as well as in comments made over the phone or online.
The water is expensive. The crime is high. We are now worried about drugs in our schools. We have poverty. We have trouble keeping businesses open. We can’t draw industry. We don’t have as nice of a town as we once did. There is way better stuff in Wichita. On and on and on and on.
Rarely, if ever, does the chip come with suggested solutions. To hear so many people talk about Newton, it sounds like we live in a rust-covered, boarded-up wasteland.
Yet, objectively, that’s not the case.
Newton sits on the intersection of two major highways. It’s fewer than 30 minutes from a major metropolitan area. It ranks as the 24th largest city in Kansas. Together with North Newton, it ranks closer to the 19th largest city. Newton has an Amtrak station and could soon find itself as a major passenger rail hub. The rail access in Newton still provides the city jobs.
The unemployment rate in the county it occupies is below four percent. Up the road, large employers like AGCO and Excel bring money into the county. Newton’s Ardent Mills produces or packages nearly 60 percent of all private label flour in the country.
Newton sports two Dillons, a Wal-Mart, Meridian Grocery and Prairie Harvest. Newton sports a bevy of restaurants, including locally owned gems, such as Genova’s , Back Alley Pizza and The Breadbasket. Its downtown hosts a beautifully remodeled coffee shop and plenty of businesses along Main Street.
Newton has a strong regional medical provider in Newton Medical Center, a hospital that is on solid ground and continues to improve care and outcomes.
Newton has a fire/EMS department regularly recognized as one of the best in the state. Newton hosts a regional mental health care facility in Prairie View.
The city has a new YMCA, one of the nicest in the region. It has a recreation facility that was recently remodeled. Newton hosts a large amount of well-respected retirement establishments, like Presbyterian Manor and Bluestem.
Cost of living in Newton remains low. Large-scale apartment complexes are nearing completion, and housing developments have begun to move forward again.
The city has 17 parks and miles of bike trails. That park system includes a pool, ball fields, a site for dogs, public art, and tons of flowers and landscaping.
And Newton has a school system that provides some of the best ways for students to achieve in life after college, whether it’s through the top-tier AP program at the high school or through the technical education program and facilities that rival some colleges. Despite the poverty, crime and other take aways that people complain about in the community, the school system puts out students who exceed state peers in testing.
All of this is to say that Newton has so many things that lesser cities in Kansas could only hope to include in five-year or 10-year development plans.
It kills me every time I see people from Derby trumpeting how great Derby is. Derby isn’t half the place Newton is, but their residents love it.
So many Newtonians don’t seem to really care about the community they live in.
They’d rather go about their daily lives, work, come home, sleep, and at most, fire off a nasty comment on Facebook if something infringes on their circle of apathy.
This city is like a small town in one big sense. A tiny amount of the population makes all the decisions. This isn’t some crazy conspiracy. This isn’t the illuminati. This is a group of people who show up. They vote. They go to meetings. They talk to people. They inform themselves. They care. They are the sorts of people who work to do something.
The rest have called it quits. Newton must be too bad a place to try doing anything to fix it.
Why is Newton such a bad place? Because it shows up on Channel 12 every time we have a drug crime? Because it doesn’t have a Freddy’s so you can stuff your face with a greasy burger, slightly different from the greasy burgers you can get at the 50 other fast food restaurants?
I know Newton has issues. I chronicle those issues every week. Those issues frustrate me.
Still, I tend to agree with those people I talk to about what hinders Newton.
The one thing worse than a problem is apathy. Because a problem can be solved through resolve. Apathy or a lack of perseverance prevents that problem from being solved. Some people seem to have that apathy in spades in Newton.
If this offends you and you are one such person, write me a letter and at least do something to participate in the process.
We don’t need a fancy marketing campaign. We don’t need a fancy t-shirt or flag design like Wichita. We don’t need to hire 20 consultants to figure out what our problem is. We need all our residents to pull their heads out of the sand and start looking around town. Be proud of what we have. And if there’s an issue, do more than just complain to address it. Talk to neighbors. Organize. Contact folks. Participate in the process. Perhaps don’t always elect incumbents in elections.
Lasting change is possible. It just takes people thinking and working to get it done. So instead of complaining, I want to be a part of that.
Start sending me your story ideas, your people deserving of recognition, your examples of why this community is worth working for. Each week, I’m picking one such story and highlighting it in the paper. I’ll work it up. I’ll run it.
And then each time someone complains to me about how terrible Newton is, I’m going to pick up my paper and say, “But look at this. Look at this story right here.” You can do the same as well. And, together, maybe we can build a little pride and push forward a little action. It’s a tall order to change how people act. But it beats simply complaining about them.