There is optimism coming from some involved with economic development.

"This is exciting," said Pam Stevens, director of the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce.

That excitement is being generated by some empty ground — though there are other hallmarks of possible growth in the near future as well.

Those empty pieces of ground, two of them, are being worked into commercial developments — one just east of I-135 on First Street, the other just south of Wal-Mart along K-15.

"This could be very exciting," Stevens said. "We could keep more of our tax dollars here locally." 

In addition to the two developments, North Woods Plaza — small commercial development in North Newton — opened last year with Everence Financial as an anchor business. Just last week, Hibbett Sports, a sporting goods store on North Main Street. The store opened about a week ago. 

Couple that with a larger-than-normal year for housing starts, and some see some positive momentum for Newton.

If there is one negative, it could be a short-term oversupply of housing and commercial space.

"I think we are on the verge of good things and some good times," said Ron Harder, a long-time real estate developer in Newton. "... I think there will be a glut of places for a while. ... But it is a chicken or an egg. Do you build first, or when people need them. If jobs appear, the house will be there. There will have to be some give and take.  .... It is good to have us Newtonians and Harvey County people to see the good stuff that is going on here. Sometimes we are the last to acknowledge these things."

This week the city commission will be asked to review requests for improvements to Rolling Hills Sixth Addition — a tract of land between a pancake house and the Interstate. Developers are asking the city to consider sanitary sewer, water system, streets, and grading work for the property. According to the petition for improvement documents, developers are asking for a special taxing district, to allow for those improvements to be paid from special property tax assessments on the property.

The city has been meeting for a number of years with members of Occidental Management to try and find a way to finance similar improvements for a development that would feature commercial, office and living spaces along K-15 south of Wal-Mart. Occidental is wanting the city to create a "TIff-like" district that would divert property taxes to pay for improvements.

In neither case would the chamber of commerce be part of the recruitment efforts to bring new business. The responsibility to fill the developments falls on the developers themselves.

A retail development task force that met in 2017 recommended to the city commission the need to develop evaluation metrics for determining what developments qualify for public funding.

Items that could be considered include the number of business inquiries, the number of businesses, the number of new commercial buildings, the number of building permits or the number of jobs created.

Discussions about metrics also touched on the need to see a return on investment and to conduct adequate cost/benefit analysis on potential city investments — and data on what kinds of businesses Newton needs, and what the community has. One of the studies recommended was a "leak study." A leak study takes a look at money leaving the community, and what it is being spent on.

"We have some of that,' said Eric Fair, a local chiropractor "who served on the task force and actively helped recruit Hibbett Sports. "We have done a leak study. It was actually pretty good. Whatever leaked out we are actually making up when your smaller towns — your Goessel people and your Hesston people — come to Newton to shop. All in all, we were doing good. What I have been looking forward on is restaurants. We have a couple of really good restaurants. ... There is not a lot of choice in town. I hear that from patients that come here and visit." 

Aside from new commercial developments, there is another marker that could mean growth for Newton as well — according to data compiled by the Department of Public Works, Engineering Division, there were 116 housing starts in Newton in 2017. By comparison, there were 106 housing starts in the five year period — 2012 to 2016 — prior to 2017.

“This will be one of those odd years on the charts, but it does give you hope that there are good things coming for Newton,” said Suzanne Loomis, director of public works for Newton.

What fueled that big number for 2017 is the launch of two different multi-family housing projects — Prairie Fire and Cottonwood Crossing.

Prairie Fire Residences is an $11 million project with 63 housing units in 21 tri-plexes. Within the not-yet-completed development, 10 units have already been leased. According to Prairie Fire, the development will be finished in February or March.

Cottonwood Crossing is a $5 million project with 42 units — 32 apartments and five duplexes. Originally scheduled for completion in December of 2017, the project is now expected to be finished in February. Like Prairie Fire, 10 units have already been leased.

Combined, the two developments account for 105 of the 116 housing starts in 2017.