As the city of Ashland anticipates another year of unprecedented growth, City Administrator Ken Eftink knows this can be a blessing and a curse.
“The challenge is to make sure we are growing the way we have envisioned,” Eftink said. “We don’t want things to get out of control and go unchecked.”
Located midway between Jefferson City and Columbia — where most Ashland residents work — the city has seen its population more than double from 1,252 to more than 2,600 in the past 12 years. That figure, Eftink said, could easily double again during the next decade.
That kind of growth has not gone unnoticed. The Boone County Journal, Ashland’s weekly newspaper, ranked the city’s growth and development as the No. 1 story of 2004. In 2004, Ashland issued 77 building permits for residential properties — the most the city has issued in a single year. In 2003, the city issued a then-record 54 residential permits. One year earlier, it issued 53 permits.
Ashland also saw the opening of a number of major businesses, including a Moser’s Discount Foods and River City Construction — a major contractor and construction company that built MU’s new Life Sciences Center.
In comparison, other cities in Missouri such as Caruthersville (population 2,173) have seen a consistent decline in the number of jobs available and residents living within its borders.
“We have been very fortunate in the amount of growth, and, in my opinion, we are well ahead of the curve when it comes to planning and development,” Eftink said.
Too economically diverse to be considered a bedroom community and too small to be considered an urban center, Ashland will now face some tough decisions. As the city pushes its borders out in every direction, Eftink said he has to ensure that the city’s budget will expand to support growth.
“We are really going to have to start coming up with ways to generate some extra revenue,” Eftink said.
“If we want to continue to provide out social services such as street maintenance and police, we will need to start attracting more businesses to add to our sales tax base.”
Attracting new businesses and more housing is contingent on the expansion of Ashland’s sewage and wastewater system.
For years, Ashland has used lagoons on the outskirts of town to handle its sewage and wastewater. With the city’s population increasing, officials are now looking to create a water treatment plant that would replace the lagoon system, which is already at capacity.
The new system would only be temporary — five to seven years — to give Ashland just enough time to connect to a Southern Boone County regional sewerage system that is still in the planning stages.
“Where the treatment plant and regional sewer system go will dictate how much and where Ashland will grow,” Eftink said.
While the population continues to increase every year and the demand for good property in the area jumps rapidly, Eftink said the development game can be tricky.
In the past year, landowners Marvin Purcell and Gary Fisher filed an injunction against the city, the Ashland Board of Education and a number of developers to halt all construction in three of Ashland’s major subdivisions. Purcell and Fisher argued that water runoff from the construction of new homes was damaging their property.“These are things we have to deal with as an expanding city,” Eftink said. “Because of this situation we now are looking at expanding our water runoff ordinances and updating our codes to hopefully see a settlement in that case.”
As a result, Eftink said, Ashland is far ahead of other cities its size when it comes to the number of regulations and codes that dictate how Ashland will grow.
Despite the growth, the Ashland Police Department has seen a decrease in the number of officers in the past five years.
Police Chief Scott Robbins and his department have felt the crunch of a city budget that is not keeping pace with the city’s growth.
“We used to have seven full-time officers,” Robbins said. “But, a few years ago we had to lay off a few or shift others to part time because we could not afford it.”
In 2001 Ashland’s sales tax revenue was tied, almost exclusively, to one business — Amega Mobile Homes Inc. With a lack of diversity in commercial property, Ashland’s revenue was dependent on how well Amega did in a given year.
“When Amega had a bad year, we had a bad year,” Eftink said.
Amega is now being sued for fraud by the state attorney general for unrelated matters.
In 2002, Ashland’s revenue dropped to $192,000, down from $247,000 in 1999. Although the city has recovered, it still has not reached the amount of revenue it had before 2002. Eftink said he has worked since then to diversify the number of businesses in the area.
All of the new businesses that have moved to town, Robbins said, help keep his department healthy and up to date.
Ashland has four full-time police officers and a number of part-time and reserve officers. The limited staff makes scheduling difficult and even leaves Ashland without a local police officer on call. For those times, the Boone County Sheriff’s Department watches over the city.
“It makes it more difficult when scheduling,” Robbins said. “I would ideally like to have two officers on each shift — especially on (a) busy night.”
Maj. Tom Reddin of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department said filling in for Ashland’s scheduling gaps is not out of the ordinary for small communities in the county.
Meanwhile, the Ashland Police Department prepares to break its own record by recording more than 1,000 arrests in a single year — most of those tickets and summons for speeding and other traffic violations.
“With more people in the city and more business coming through from both Columbia and Jefferson City, it is only natural to see more calls for service,” Robbins said.
More importantly, though, as the city continues to expand, his department finds it harder to hire and retain officers without also expanding the city budget to raise salaries.
“As the chief of police, I make less than a starting deputy with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department,” Robbins said. “We are consistently behind the Columbia Police Department and Boone County by $10,000 to $15,000.”
Robbins said this situation does not mean that Ashland is any less safe. It just makes it more difficult to attract and retain new police officers.
The disparity among police salaries means officers who do come to Ashland are generally fresh out of the Missouri Police Academy and looking for a few years of experience before moving to better-paying jobs, he said.
“Our biggest challenge in the next five years is going to be keeping a full staff,” Robbins said.
Tending a growing flock
There are some who look at Ashland and see more potential for a town that has only started to grow.
“There is a lot we can do here,” the Rev. Dan Hayes said. “And as the town continues to grow, we will continue to grow and continue our service to the city.”
Hayes came to Ashland in June when the Columbia and Jefferson City regional Lutheran Churches decided to open a new church in Ashland. Hayes had recently finished seminary school and was selected to lead the new church.
In just the past six months, Hayes’ church has gone from 10 members to nearly 60. Nearly 100 people attended Christmas Eve services.
Ashland and Southern Boone County are home to more than 13 churches and places of worship, of which three have been formed in the past year.
Four other churches, such as the Ashland Baptist Church and the Ashland Christian Church, have expanded their buildings and renovated to accommodate the growing number of new members. Hayes said even with such a large number of churches there is still a big demand for the community services that each church offers, including newcomer assistance and social services referrals.
In response to this growing demand, pastors formed a group to coordinate efforts among three local churches. The Southern Boone Ministerial Alliance has been helping new residents find a place to worship for less than a year now, but the group has been around for years.
“I, along with the other churches in the Ministerial Alliance, see our role as someone who can help an individual who is new to the community in a time of need,” he said.
This cooperation among churches allows pastors a chance to not only focus on their congregations, Hayes said, but also work with others to ensure they are providing service to those new to Ashland.
“We are going to be working very hard in the future as Ashland grows to make sure that individuals do not fall through the cracks,” Hayes said.
In the next 10 years, if Ashland’s population continues to grow, Hayes said he could see a Lutheran school in the area to serve the growing Lutheran population.
As Eftink looks forward to 2005 he said he knows there will be some challenges that the city will face, but, he added, he remains optimistic and thinks Ashland is on track for another good year.
“I am very excited with what we have planned for 2005,” Eftink said. “Nothing definite, but we have a lot of potential projects that will benefit this city a lot.”