The topic of affordable housing is one that’s very much on the minds of staff at the Dickinson County Economic Development Corp, according to Executive Director Chuck Scott.
Scott met with county commissioners March 25 to update them on what the organization has been doing, presenting a broad overview since most of its work is confidential.
“We are fully aware of the housing availability, the housing market, and there is quite a bit less today than we had a year ago,” Scott said. “It’s becoming more important that we figure out how to try to help get new housing starts. And not just new housing starts in general, but housing in the affordable range for the employees of the employers we have.”
Commissioner Craig Chamberlin specifically asked if the organization was working to market The Highlands, a housing development on the west side of Abilene which never got off the ground.
“We’re fairly involved in that. We continue to have conversations with housing developers. There’s one that’s a preferred developer,” Scott replied. “There isn’t a week that goes by that we don’t have conversations with them.
“I can tell you the state is actively looking at housing as well. How can they assist more communities? How can they assist in getting more housing starts?” he added.
Scott said housing discussions are happening, not only with Abilene, but with communities countywide.
“We’ve had activity in Herington. We’ve got an opportunity in Chapman that’s just starting to come to the forefront. We’re working hard to try and figure out how to take advantage of that opportunity,” Scott said.
Answers need to be discovered to questions like: Where’s the land, where do we want to put (the housing), how do we get infrastructure to it and where’s the equity coming from to make the transaction actually come to fruition?
“That’s the biggest challenge to all of this. How do we close the gap that usually has to be filled in a housing project?” Scott explained. “With affordable housing we can’t go charge what a developer needs to get a full return on a project today — which is why we have this issue in rural areas.
“How do you get monthly rent at a rate the employees can afford with the cost of housing today? And the cost of lumber continues to go up. It does not make this challenge any easier,” Scott said.
He noted that is part of the reason the state is now involved.
“We’ve got a lot of demand, but we can’t find the balance to make the project actually pencil out financially in most of these,” Scott said. “So we’re working with the state to help try and figure out how do we encourage additional housing?”
Chamberlin asked about building “infill” housing, where new homes are built on existing lots in a community.
Scott said he is an advocate of infill housing because the infrastructure already exists; however, it’s still difficult to find ways to encourage a developer to build them because of the profitability factor.
One possible answer, which would take time, is to encourage students interested in going into the building trades to consider becoming a builder or developer and start off one home at a time.
“Is there an opportunity for us to maybe have conversations with schools and other individuals?” he said.
Commissioner Chamberlin also asked if the DKEDC is helping communities look into building apartments.
“Yup!” Scott answered, explaining they would be an opportunity for more than one community. “Those opportunities exist today. The conversation is: Here’s the opportunity, what do we have to do to make it happen?”
Chamberlin commented that not everyone is interested in buying a home, some prefer to rent an apartment.
Scott said Dickinson County is in a great location to support more apartments, especially Chapman due to its location; however, everything takes time.
“It takes quite a bit of planning to get all the ducks around,” he said.
Scott reported that so far in 2021, DKEDC has assisted 16 individual companies and held over 70 visits, many of which have been virtual.
Over the five years DKEDC has existed it has been involved with 1,300 visits, has assisted 321 companies, has created 358 new jobs and retained 77 for a total of 435 jobs in the county.
As for a capital investment, Scott said DKEDC has created a little over $40.5 million over that same time period.
Scott said DKEDC works on projects countywide.
“We’re county focused. It doesn’t matter where our office is. If there’s a business in the county and we can assist, we’ll be there,” Scott said.
Commissioner Ron Roller said DKEDC has done a remarkable job at the south end of the county.
“In Herington, for example, you will be amazed at what’s going on. The buildings, the main street itself, the attitude. I think attitude plays a big part in positive thinking of what our communities can do — especially with the economic times we’ve been through,” Roller said.
“I don’t think there’s a book written on how to successfully do anything in a community,” Roller added. “I think you’ve got to make it work.”
Scott agreed, “There’s not a template. You’ve got to have a feel for what’s needed. Our communities are different. I’m not afraid to say that to anybody. They all require different mechanisms, different ways to help them or see improvement.”
Scott admitted it took awhile to figure out how to help Herington, but the city also made changes.
“The community stepped up and said ‘we’re ready to make some changes.” That’s why we’ve got a Dollar Tree/Family Dollar going downtown into a 12,000-square foot building that was empty,” Scott said. “Those kind of things don’t happen by accident.
“It’s a community that’s changing itself. The community helped put itself on the radar. We helped put information out there to those retailers,” Scott added.