Just before noon on Friday, Newton city commissioners, as well as staff, members of the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce and leadership for Prairie Fire Development Group gathered for a ground breaking for Prairie Fire's new housing development (called Prairie Fire Residences) on Windward Drive, just behind the Newton Walmart.
During the ceremony, which was introduced by Executive Director for the Chamber, Pam Stevens, the crowd in attendance heard from Newton Mayor Barth Hague, President of the Chamber Michael Lunsford, Director of Rental Housing Allocation for the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation Fred Bentley, Owner and President for Prairie Fire Kelley Hrabe and Owner/Chief Operating Officer for Prairie Fire Rudy Manes.
A luncheon reception, which took place at the Meridian Center, followed the ceremony.
Owners' Representative for Prairie Fire Development Group Jared Nook, who will be helping to manage the project's construction process, spoke to The Kansan following the initial ceremony.
Nook said Prairie Fire will start construction on the project next week and overall completion is scheduled for late spring of 2018.
Nook added that Prairie Fire is planning on bringing units online in winter of 2017 and into the first part of 2018.
"I think it's going to be a great thing and we're excited too because we've done these in some of the other communities," Nook said. "We've revamped our floor plans and I think these are going to be really nice for people to live in."
Nook noted the abundance of resources near the development, including Walmart next door and nearby Newton Medical Center.
Newton Director of Community Planning and Development Kelly Bergeron called the housing "a huge boon" for the community.
The City of Newton conducted a housing study in 2011, the results of which displayed a shortage of entry-level housing.
Specifically, Bergeron said that means the city is in need of single family residential, but typically that also means apartments and townhomes, so the development will be filling part of that gap and getting younger families moving into the community.
Typically, once a young family is in the community, Bergeron said they will rent for a while and build up savings, later investing in building a single family home or in buying their first home.
Bergeron said the development will also give those who are currently commuting to Newton an opportunity to live nearby, thus supporting the local economy.
Hrabesaid Bentley, who is with the Kansas Housing Resources Corporation, essentially runs the Affordable Housing Tax Program for the State of Kansas.
Thanks to Bentley, Hrabe said the new development got an allocation of tax credits, which Prairie Fire can go out and sell on the open market to raise equity to build the development.
The state receives about 54 applications a year for these tax credits, and Hrabe said it typically only awards 14 or 15 projects. There is a one in four chance of being selected, so Hrabe said he and his team feel fortunate in being able to go after the project.
It resonated well with the state and Bentley, Hrabe said – the economic development, the market, the location and support from the city led to Bentley looking at the project favorably and getting it awarded the financing allocation.
When the Prairie Fire team goes into communities where they aim to do these types of projects, Hrabe said they spend a lot of time researching and locating sites. Before any of that, though, they speak to the governments of prospective cities.
If cities are not interested in a project, Hrabe said there is plenty of opportunity elsewhere, and they move on.
In the first step behind the new development, Hrabe said he and his team spoke to the city commission, which stated a need for more housing in the community.
The city then let them know what sites were available, after which Hrabe said they went and looked at the sites, got the site under contract, designed the site and got their financial package put together.
"Basically, (it's) a process that started two years ago this summer," Hrabe said, "so it's been in process for almost the last two years to get to this point."
Hrabe added that he and his team had been speaking to the city about the development since the summer of 2015. From now on, he will be less a part of the process and Nook (overseen by Manes) will manage construction of Prairie Fire Residences.
Hrabe said the new development fills him with a sense of accomplishment because what they do for communities is important and because many don't understand that the need for quality, affordably priced rental housing in the nation is greater than it has ever been.
For every unit they build of this type, Hrabe said there is a need for at least 70 units – and it's good to know they are providing a quality option for housing to those that need it.
Prairie Fire already has a 45 unit property in McPherson, called Prairie Point, which Hrabe said has reached 100 percent occupancy (with people still on the list). Another Prairie Fire property (called Meadow View) in Moundridge, was just finished in November and is already almost 100 percent leased.
Those numbers show the demand for quality, low-budget housing, Hrabe explained, not only nationwide, but also in rural areas, where housing has not been constructed in awhile.
"I think (affordable housing) is a great need for the community," President of the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce Michael Lunsford told The Kansan." I believe there has been a need for some time and this particular group, the Prairie Fire group, is going to help fill that need. I think they are doing it in a very high-end fashion, but at an affordable rate."
Lunsford also pointed to the 2011 study that showed the need for this type of development. Based upon the occupancy of the properties in McPherson and Moundridge, he said it could do well in Newton.
Also, at the affordable market rate, Lunsford said the development will help those in transitional housing situations, like teachers, firefighters and others that are looking for housing in that market.
"We have lost some people in those areas, such as nurses, that will be able to stay in Newton," Lunsford said, "and that's good for the tax base as well."
The more that move to Newton, the broader the tax base becomes and the more developments and amenities develop along with it.
"The developers will figure out, in short order out there, if there's a market here for something," said Mayor Barth Hague. "I think they are beginning to see some things that we will be slower to recognize here – because we live here."
As time passes, Hague said the need for housing will become more and more apparent to citizens.
The new development could not only have a positive impact on the housing market in Newton, but Hague noted that it could also have a positive impact on the the local real estate market.