a gem in the Midwest
Vibrant, unique, and community-centered, Liberal, KS sets the bar high
Tucked away in the heart of the Midwest, the vibrant town of Liberal, Kansas, shines as a beacon of community warmth and hospitality. Boasting a rich history, it stands apart from its neighbors, offering an inviting atmosphere to all who visit or call it home. At the core of this unique town lies an unwavering spirit of inclusivity and acceptance that transcends race, gender, and ideologies.
City Manager Rusty Varnado believes that the greatest asset of Liberal is the “mentality of the citizens and the welcoming nature of the community.” This is deeply rooted in the town’s history, dating back to when farmers journeyed westward. While many settlements charged for water, one farmer, Mr. Rogers, generously allowed free access to his well. This spirit of openness and hospitality has woven itself into the very fabric of Liberals’ society.
Eli Svaty, Executive Director at Seward County Development Corporation, adds that the community atmosphere is “integral to [Liberal’s] city focus.” With a forward-thinking city commission in place, the town of Liberal is poised for an exciting new chapter grounded in inclusivity and growth.
Liberal’s rich history is rooted in agriculture, natural gas, oil, and helium. As Svaty explains, the mid-20th century brought significant change to the region with the discovery of one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves. While the area has seen a decrease in extraction over the past couple of decades, there remains a residual reliance on that economy.
As the town looks to the future, growth is a significant focus. However, this growth comes with its challenges, particularly regarding housing. Svaty acknowledges that “housing production was borderline stagnant in the community over the last ten years.”
Only nine permits for single-family construction were issued in the previous year, making it difficult for the town to maintain its housing stock.
The city is tackling this issue by actively engaging with landowners, developers, and builders to increase the housing stock across the spectrum. Svaty states they are “in conversations with landowners, developers, builders, anyone who will listen,” as they recognize the need to compete with other communities facing similar housing shortages.
Affordable housing is a significant component of Liberal’s development plans. Svaty highlights the importance of providing options for those employed in value-added agriculture and lower entry-level jobs throughout feedlots and dairies.
By focusing on housing developments catering to the entire income spectrum, the town aims to ensure its sustainable and inclusive growth.
Aside from housing, the city prides itself on being a hub of commerce, strategically located at the intersection of Highways 54 and 83. City Manager Varnado explains, “Liberal sits at the intersection of highways 54 and 83, the latter the only highway in the country that goes from Mexico to Canada.” This prime location places the town just a few miles from the borders of Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico, making it a true “springboard from the west into Kansas.”
Recognizing the importance of its geographical location, Liberal plans to capitalize on this advantage through improved marketing and public awareness. Varnado shares that they will hire a public affairs director to help with legislative affairs and spearhead a coordinated marketing campaign.
This initiative will involve collaboration between the Chamber, Seward County Development Corporation, tourism, and local investors. The goal is to effectively convey Liberal’s unique position and significance to a broader audience, attracting visitors and potential residents.
To bolster its infrastructure and further solidify its status as a central transportation hub, Liberal, Kansas, has $30 million in proposed or anticipated road improvements on the horizon.
City Manager Varnado explains that much of the funding is allocated for the state-funded expansion of Highway 54, a project that has been in the works for over a decade. Additionally, improvements are planned for Highway 83, which stretches from the Oklahoma state line northward toward Garden City.
To enhance traffic and commerce, Liberal has recently joined forces with Garden City and Scott City to create the Highway 83 freight corridors. Varnado acknowledges that the town has missed opportunities due to the lack of a four-lane highway. Still, with the state’s support and collaboration with the county, they are investing a lot of local money to enhance those freight rails.
These road improvements will increase the ease of commerce, further establishing Liberal as a central transportation hub and attracting more business opportunities.
The beef industry also plays a pivotal role in the local economy of Liberal. Svaty highlights the sector’s importance, saying it “employs 3,000 people in the community” and contributes to a circle of related businesses, including feedlots and grain farmers.
While not strictly a company town, Liberal has a strong relationship with the beef industry, which has been a part of the community since the 1960s.
A beef wastewater facility in Liberal, a critical component of the local economy, has recently been recognized with a prestigious green award. This project involved National Beef and the city of Liberal, with both parties investing in their own wastewater treatment facilities.
According to Svaty, these facilities not only support the vital beef industry but can also be an attractor for other industries looking to relocate.
On the development front, City Manager Varnado shares some of the city’s innovative and sustainable initiatives.
One such project involves the wastewater management facility, designed to support 20 years of growth capacity.
“We generally process about a million and a half gallons of water daily,” he says, “and it is designed so that we can reuse approximately a million gallons.” This has significant conservation benefits, reducing the need to draw water from the aquifer for irrigation and other purposes.
Other sustainable initiatives include transitioning to LED lighting for all facilities and repairs and doubling up on personnel in city vehicles to reduce fuel costs and emissions. Varnado also mentions the possibility of transitioning some of the city’s bus fleet to electric power, with one local hotel already offering charging stations.
In addition to these eco-friendly measures, Varnado highlights a $4.5 million water infrastructure project recently approved by the city commission. This project aims to address significant problem areas throughout the city and update antiquated water lines, which have caused considerable water loss over the years.
The project was made possible through the state’s revolving fund, which honored a low 1.5% interest rate despite rising interest rates.
Attracting new businesses is also part of the city’s long-term strategic plan. Svaty shares the city’s focus on attracting diverse companies and supporting local entrepreneurship.
Despite National Beef is the primary employer in the area, he emphasizes the importance of smaller businesses and the entrepreneurial spirit of the city’s immigrant population, stating:
“We’re 65% Hispanic, a highly entrepreneurial demographic not afraid to launch businesses.”
Svaty also highlights the various industries thriving in the region, such as some of the largest ethanol production facilities in the country (Arkalon Ethanol and Conestoga Energy Partners), the largest cotton warehouse in the nation, and a major dairy farm boasting one of the largest rotary milking parlors in the country.
To support the growth of small businesses and attract niche industries, Svaty says the city aims to leverage its resources, including land, low environmental impact, and raw materials, besides exploring opportunities in value-added agriculture, housing components and elements, and cotton production.
This push to support small “mom and pop” enterprises will further benefit from the city’s upcoming designation as a sanctioned small business development center for the region. This milestone will enable providing resources and support connected to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for local businesses, from startups to established companies.
Svaty explains the city’s approach: “We can take you from idea and startup and provide you with resources and support to help get you off the ground, including providing a funding component.” The city has established several loan pools, some specifically for minority-serving loans, and others in partnership with local banks to facilitate funding.
The city also helps existing businesses expand, offering marketing, location, and site support programs. They are expanding the scope of neighborhood revitalization and facade improvement grants, making them available to more businesses across the county.
Diversification is a primary focus for Liberal, with Svaty emphasizing that the city aims to support a wide range of industries to foster economic growth and sustainability.
In terms of education, the city is focusing on improving the local school district, with an emphasis on apprenticeship programs to address the graduation gap.
As Varnado explains, many students in Liberal enter the workforce as soon as they acquire basic skills. To bridge this gap, the city is working with the Department of Labor on youth apprenticeship programs. Svaty adds that the community college and high school recently launched a new initiative to reduce student fees and tuition costs, encouraging more of them to pursue training and certifications.
In 2023, the primary focus for Liberal is addressing the pressing need for housing. Svaty underscores the critical importance of this issue, stating, “We need to show that we can house workers and employees, and we’ve got some catching up to do on that front before we’re capable.”
Varnado echoes his sentiment, adding that housing is the primary driver for businesses looking to expand or relocate to the area. Varnado shares the mayor’s vision of making Liberal the residential hub of the region, saying, “You come live here, and you can work wherever you want.”
Speaking about Liberal’s connection to the famous story of Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz, Svaty acknowledges the whimsical aspect of the town’s claim to fame.
“Although it cracks me up, people come to Liberal from all parts of the country, some from other parts of the world, to visit Dorothy’s house and take pictures with Dorothy.”
Despite its lighthearted nature, this link to the classic tale continues to attract visitors and contribute to Liberal’s unique charm.
AT A GLANCE
What: a bustling dynamic Midwestern city with an eye to the future
Where: Seward County, Kansas
Liberal Convention & Visitors Bureau – www.visitliberal.com
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