After the opening of the State of Saline County meeting Thursday, April 24, moderator Jean Gaddy-Wilson sent participants off to their small group sessions with three questions to consider:
--What are three activities that are occurring in your area right now that will help Saline County progress at a faster pace than it has progressed in the past decade?
--What are the three most pressing needs you face in the coming year, and are they different needs from what you faced last year at this time?
--What are the two biggest threats your area faces in the next five years and what three groups in Saline County can help you fight those threats off?
These small groups focused on tourism, agricultural, real estate, public safety, health care, education, small business, economic opportunities and non-profit organizations.
For some groups, the problems mentioned last year remained unsolved. The real estate market in Marshall and Saline County, for example, is still as unsettled this year as last, echoing the experience of most markets around the U.S.
For some subject areas, though, the news is better.
In last year's state of the county forum, the agriculture group identified financing the next generation of farmers, government regulation and negative publicity about concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as their top three issues.
This year, the group agreed the current farm economy is stronger than it's been in recent memory. With the weak dollar and higher land values, farmers are doing better.
"But," said group leader Beverly Holland of Holland Farms, "the bottom line hasn't changed much," to the general agreement of the group.
High input costs, an aging population of farmers, and few qualified workers who can handle newer technologies are among their biggest concerns. Passing family farms on to the younger generation is still high on the list of concerns, with no easy solution.
David Copland of Slater said he knows, "at most, a handful," of families with younger members willing to return to the farm as a full-time occupation.
Looking to the future, the group agreed there is a lack of knowledge in the rest of the county about "what 'agriculture' really is," and said it is important for them to tell their own story instead of letting others with only "limited knowledge" tell it for them.
For the tourism group, this year's concerns were similar to those of last year -- funding and development of area attractions.
Chamber of Commerce President Angie Wells said efforts to develop "agri-tourism" are needed.
"(It's) something we definitely need to tap into," she said. "(It would be great) if we could get farmers and agricultural people to open up production."
The group also pointed to collaboration among diverse tourism groups as another area in need of attention. Farmer Larry Holland made this point forcefully.
"Everyone is working hard, but we're not pulling on the same rope," he said.
The downside identified by this group is the current economic downturn, specifically higher gas prices that could have a dampening effect on vacation travel plans. One solution offered was to wrap Saline County's attractions into one presentation, and then offer a two-day bus tour of the area.
The economic opportunity group had good news to report, with the recently-announced increase in hiring at ConAgra, one of the area's largest employers.
On the other hand, the group felt a need to "instill an acceptable work ethic in our young people," and that too many workers are not "work force ready." And the group pointed out what other groups recognized -- ethnic diversity in the workplace is here to stay and efforts to smooth the transition must be increased.
The well-attended health care group reported good news, too, focusing on the new health department building, expansion of Fitzgibbon Hospital and increased use of immunization clinics around the county.
On the downside of the health care picture, the need for better insurance at all levels, and a better understanding of coverage is badly needed. The number of uninsured and under-insured citizens of the county is increasing.
Nearly every group mentioned the county's aging workforce, an issue nationwide, as the baby boom generation matures. This group's impact is being felt in every facet of society today, and will continue to impact all areas, far into the future.
Non-profit organizations are generally doing better, with the expansion of facilities at the YMCA and Butterfield Ranch, and with the expansion of affordable housing through the efforts of Missouri Valley Community Action Agency and Habitat for Humanity.
On the other hand, the group cited the lack of public transportation, apart from OATS buses, anywhere in the county as of particular concern. The difficulty of obtaining good dental care was also mentioned, as it was last year, as another area that needs attention.
Overall, the state of Saline County is slightly better in many areas than it was at the last summit. Ground has been both gained and lost. There is room for both optimism and improvement, and the news is not all bad.
Contact Kathy Fairchild at email@example.com