Contractor plans to aid Liberal’s need for new housing
By ANANDA COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
Community members gathered in the Old Rock Island Depot Wednesday, to hear about and discuss one of Liberal’s increasingly significant problems: available housing.
Despite its roomy spot on the High Plains, Liberal faces overcrowding and limited space for newcomers. Forum speaker Jason Vansickle, a developer, statistician, and business owner hailing from Wichita, thinks he has the beginning of a solution. He wants to purchase land in the Liberal area and build between 100 and 200 new apartments, and he plans to do it without receiving any form of government incentives. This, he believes, would alleviate some of the problems unique to Liberal’s community.
According to Vansickle’s data analysis, compared to much of the United States, Liberal is an exception. “Liberal is in this great situation right now. It’s growing. It’s at 3 percent unemployment, which is incredible,” he said. “You’re even being proactive and looking ahead with the new school bond issue…. But you’re like a lot of communities where, as your jobs have grown, your housing hasn’t kept up. You have teachers coming for jobs, some skilled labor coming in and you’ll end up with some turnover because people will come to say, ‘I like being a teacher here, but I can’t find a decent place to live.’”
Vansickle, who “grew up seeing the incredible value of community, the importance of businesses doing important things for the community,” has not come to Liberal unprepared. Aside from the large amounts of research he conducted on the town itself, he brings a wide variety of titles to the table – with a major in philosophy, master’s in sociology, he is a statistician and President of Wichita’s Old Town Association.
However, Vansickle’s perspective is hardly limited to the abstracts of philosophy. He also spent time learning the basics of his own business: laying tile and sheetrock. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his plans and models is his decision not to take government incentives as part of his business.
“I looked around, and I saw there are a lot of developers and contractors using government incentives,” he said, “And I just decided from this point on, I will not be a developer unless I can become smart enough to build real estate without using a single penny of government incentives.”
The decision, he explained, came from a variety of sources. Partially, it was the instability of the incentives. Sometimes, the government decides to refocus its priorities, thus bankrupting projects depending on that money. That problem aside, Vansickle has qualms about taking tax-payer dollars to build something as part of his business for his own profit.
“Jobs and housing – that’s what makes the community strong in its foundation,” Vansickle said. “Housing is one of the things that gets overlooked… and in rural communities, it’s difficult because you don’t usually have the skill set to keep up with your housing needs, especially if you are growing. What’s great about a community like Liberal is that you are growing, because that’s not the trend for most rural communities in Kansas.”
This was interesting given what Vansickle described as “the urbanization of America.” He explained that over the past 200 years in the United States, the percentage of rural versus urban communities has changed drastically.
“People are moving to big cities because it’s an easier life. More resources are available,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re all going to become Kansas Citys or Wichitas; you’re also going to have your Liberals.”
Towns like Liberal are not exempt from what he described as “interesting growing pains.” Housing is especially complicated because unless local contractors and developers do the work, he explained, there is not really a steady supply of people to build single-family homes.
“You don’t really attract contractors because they’re going to the big cities, because there’s a big market and it’s easier,” he said. “You really don't attract people who build transitional housing, as what they develop. People who develop duplexes, fourplexes and apartment complexes, like I do, because those are incredibly difficult things to design and develop. They’re complicated and expensive.”
He went on to explain that it is especially expensive to develop in places like Liberal, due to transporting supplies and labor. “It is between 10 to 20 percent more expensive,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Vansickle remains optimistic: “I believe in Liberal. I’ve got 120 communities where my model worked. Liberal’s in the Top 10 of those communities.”
Vansickle said he plans to begin the project as soon as possible and the standard amount of time for completion is “about 12 months.”
Audience members seemed enthusiastic during and after the presentation. Seward County Commission Chair Ada Linenbroker was in attendance.
“I have been working on this for the last three years,” she said. “Every year, we have teachers come and there’s no place for the teachers to live. It sounds like this apartment complex will be perfect for those single teachers who will be moving here… that just sounded amazing.”