Beyond Agriculture: Kiowa, Kansas Makes Hay Out of Becoming a Manufacturing Hub
As legend has it, when the early settlers in what is now Kiowa, Kansas, came across a lost Kiowa Native American girl, they took the child in and cared for her until her mother returned. The mother and child were so happy to be reunited, the Kiowa tribe gave the town a Native American blessing that residents believe still protects the City of Kiowa to this day–helping it to avoid everything from tornadoes to barren harvests.
With just more than 1,000 residents, the agricultural city of Kiowa is known for its wheat, milo and canola crops. In fact, according to City Administrator Lou Leone, Kiowa has such a bountiful crop yield, the State of Kansas uses the town’s crops as a gauge to tell how the harvest is fairing in the entire state.
But agriculture isn’t the only business Kiowa wants to be known for. According to Leone, the city is hoping to attract more manufacturing jobs, such as ammunition manufacturing, telecom or even a data center.
“We have at least three locations that would be good for manufacturing, two on the west side of town and one right off main street,” Leone notes. “We also have teardowns, so there’s lots of available land.”
Despite its size, Kiowa is surrounded by infrastructure. A BNSF rail line runs just west of town, which Leone says could become a stop if requested, and the city is seated along Highway K2 (a connection to US 281) and K8, which runs from Kiowa to nearby Oklahoma.
Indeed, Oklahoma is so close to Kiowa that Leone recounts a story of his young daughter returning from a bike ride one day, proudly announcing that she’d ridden her bicycle “to Oklahoma and back.”
Kiowa is about 25 miles from Medicine Lodge Municipal Airport (K51) and a 90-minute drive from Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport (ICT). Leone says Kiowa plans to build its own airport sometime in the future as well.
Because Kiowa owns its own utilities, the city is uniquely postured to offer businesses lower rates than any nearby city. Kiowa’s two generators put out more than 3 megs of power along the city’s 13 miles of high-power transmission lines, enabling the city to charge just 7.3 cents a kilowatt for power. Meanwhile, Kiowa’s already-low water prices are the same for both residential and commercial customers. In fact, the average home in Kiowa pays just $52 dollars a month total for all utilities.
As for incentives, Kiowa is considered a “Rural Opportunity Zone,” which means if you relocate there from out of state and several employees relocate with you, your income tax will be refunded for the first five years. Kiowa also allows new businesses to buy electricity at cost for the first three to five years depending on usage, and Leone says new incentive programs are currently under way.
As great as it is to work in Kiowa, it’s also a wonderful place to raise a family, with beloved schools and a recently updated hospital. Cultural traditions include an annual Christmas parade and the yearly Pioneer Days that celebrate Kiowa’s role at the center of the 1893 land rush into Oklahoma.
“It’s the kind of town where people are waving to you as you’re driving down the road,” says Leone “whether they know you or not.”
Lou Leone: Leading Kiowa to the Future
When Lou Leone first took the helm as city manager of Kiowa, Kansas, in 2015, he had no idea how much work would be required to get the city on track for success—or, as he puts it, “Open up the hood and kick the tires of the city.”
As it turned out, getting on track meant a major overhaul of the city’s utilities, including a second generator for the city-owned power plant, replacing all of the city’s 1,100 power line poles, insulators and transformers (so far 150 have been replaced), and applying for USDA funding to finance improvements to Kiowa’s entire water grid.
According to Leone, replacing the water grid will not only involve changing out the valves and water hydrants, but it will change Kiowa’s water grade from a six to a possible four. The city even plans to enhance its sewer system within the next two to three years.
In addition to the very-near future, Leone has also made sure the city remains on the right track with long term improvement plans at the five, 10-, 15- and 20-year marks. Some of those plans include digitizing all city files, broadcasting city council meetings, adding an airport, providing city-owned Internet service and even adding a nine-hole golf course.
But those dates aren’t carved in stone, either. In fact, Leone says many of the upgrades can be fast-tracked for the right business.
“We are investing in ourselves quite a bit,” he says. “We’re just waiting for the right person or the right company to join our community.”
If that means speeding up the timetable to accommodate a new business, Leone is more than happy to oblige.
Unsurprisingly, his efforts have earned him notice in town and among peers. In fact, Leone has been so ambitious in his efforts to upgrade Kiowa, he was awarded the Kansas Association of City/County Management (KACM) “Rookie of the Year” award his first year on the job.
“I’m kind of famous around here for saying, “We’re going to get there,” says Leone with a laugh.
With Leone at the helm, there’s little doubt they will.