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Ozarks Commons: Want a connected community? Include the kids


The future of our community is in our hands. We can choose to make it a place where everyone has the opportunity to succeed, or we can let it be a place where only the privileged few thrive.

The City of West Plains recently adopted a long-term comprehensive plan with input from the community through the Connect West Plains campaign.

Looking over the plan, which can be found at connectwpmo.com, I couldn’t help but think how apt the name of the initiative is: Not only did the city make an effort to connect citizens of all walks of life through a joint effort to improve the community, many of the logistical and infrastructural ideas proposed sought to connect neighborhoods to one another, bring convenient commerce to residential areas and expand transportation to allow for foot and bicycle traffic, creating space for people to interact with each other just by existing in the community.

But a few other things caught my eye, things that concerned me — among them, while the response was pretty sizable, and the city engaged a youth committee to help shape the plan, zero percent of the survey responses came from anyone younger than 18, and less than 4% of input was given by young adults between 18 and 24.

The largest group represented among survey respondents was my age bracket: 25.5% who weighed in were between the ages of 35 and 44. I suppose that gives me some hope, because that age bracket largely happens to be the parents of the underrepresented teens and young adults. In all, however, just over 64% — nearly two-thirds — of survey filler-outers were between 35 and 64 years of age. The kids have words for folks in this age bracket, and they don’t generally indicate a faith in our ability to keep up with the times and stay “with it,” as it were, much less provide a future that makes them want to come back home when they go off to college.

How can we create a plan for the next 10, 20, 30 years without the input of our youth?

“Brain drain” is a concept often discussed in rural America by economists, job creators and educators alike. It describes a scenario in which a community’s youth leave in pursuit of education or opportunity, and instead of returning, they stay out in the world, where opportunities are more abundant.

The effect this has on a community is one of stagnation. Progress reaches a standstill when there are no new ideas being brought to the table by young folks who see things differently.

And I’d say that’s a problem.

The majority of survey respondents will be between the ages of 65 and 94 years old 30 years from now, a time period the comprehensive plan is purported to project toward. What do we know about what young adults and teens need to feel like they have opportunities here? We know a little about what makes West Plains currently a great place to raise a family, having recently done so ourselves, or being currently in the midst of it, but we don’t necessarily have the insight to future challenges that our youth do.

I don’t fault the city — the city tried. As I said, they included a committee of high schoolers who helped shape the plan with their input. And as a mother of two teens, one recently graduated, I know it is hard to get teens interested in something so abstract as the future of their community.

But still, I can’t help but wonder if we are asking them the right questions, the right way.

One of the questions the youth committee sought to answer was, “What would bring you back to live (or help you remain) in West Plains after you graduate?” A great question — but it requires a certain amount of perspective that the teens have not all had the opportunity to gain, as evidenced by their answers.

There were six small groups who sought to answer this and other questions. What did they say would bring them back or keep them here? West Plains’ rural location, nature, family and friends, community support, the historic/comfortable vibe, and the cost of living and education for middle and high schoolers were among the answers given by four of the groups. These are things that already exist.

Two groups “understood the assignment” the same way I did: They answered with what does not exist and, if these things did exist, they would be a strong enough draw that these youths would consider returning or staying. And I’m willing to bet, the teens in these two groups have probably spent a fair amount of time exploring life outside of West Plains, maybe even outside of Missouri.

Their answers? A four-year university would keep them here or bring them back. New apartments and housing opportunities (I might add, though they didn’t say, quality housing young adults just starting out can afford). More suburban living. Businesses keeping open hours beyond 4 p.m. so students can patronize them after school. A YMCA in West Plains. Renovating the high school “to create a better space for more opportunities,” and more opportunities through Missouri State University-West Plains.

This is what our children are saying we need.

I didn’t see a whole lot of similar comments from the adults weighing on the survey and leaving comments on the draft plan. I saw lot of observations about blight and run-down neighborhoods, some discussion of transportation issues, but not much about how to address issues that affect our kids — such as the boredom that leads to them finding entertainment by whatever means they can, sometimes turning to substance use and other risky behaviors.

I am afraid if we keep up on this track, we’re going to lose our kiddos, and with them, the spirit that keeps us as a community young.

I believe that we can build a better future for our community, but it will take hard work and dedication. We need to invest in our schools, our infrastructure, our businesses and our children.

I know that we can do this. We are a strong and resilient community, and we have a long history of overcoming challenges. Together, we can build a future that is bright for everyone.

It won't be easy, but it's worth it. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to make our community a place where everyone can succeed.

As always, I love to hear from you. Share your thoughts by shooting me an email at abbyh@wpdailyquill.net or give me a call at the office, 417-256-9191.