If you’re contemplating a new job opportunity in the Greater Manhattan region, consider how living in a rural Kansas community could be — as one east-coast transplant puts it — “a breath of fresh air” for you and your family.
Whether you’re relocating to the Greater Manhattan area for private sector jobs, positions at K-State or Fort Riley, or employment at the soon-to-open National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, you may want to check out a different style of living than what you’d find in the bustling college town of Manhattan.
Manhattan is the largest city in the region, with about 56,000 permanent residents and about 20,000 Kansas State University students, within about 30 miles of Manhattan are several small communities with a lot to offer.
While most major regional employers are headquartered in Manhattan, many employees commute (with no gridlock or traffic jams, just easy highway driving) each day. The city limits of Manhattan fall within two counties: Riley and Pottawatomie. Each county has several small towns and unincorporated areas within about a 30-minute drive of Manhattan, each with its own character, amenities and housing options.
Dan Hohman, who moved to the small town of St. Marys, Kansas, 30 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has spent the past four decades raising his family and running his business, Sugar Creek Country Store. Here, he found not only a sense of community, but a healthier way of life.
“It’s just a slower pace. People are more open, are pleasant to talk to on the street. Total strangers in the line at the grocery store get into conversations. You never saw things like that in Pittsburgh,” Hohman said. “It’s been a great place to raise our children.”
Darin Miller, co-owner of Iron Clad Coworking and Events, and Poppy Tees, in Wamego (Wah-MEE-go), also moved here with his wife Heather after living in several larger U.S. cities. Miller believes there’s a special ingredient that makes life in Wamego and many of the other small towns in the Greater Manhattan region different: community spirit.
“Community spirit is hard to explain, but it makes people work together rather than fight. It makes ideas come to fruition. It’s a nebulous thing,” Miller said, pointing to many regional assets that have been created when residents pulled together to make good things happen. “In some places, there’s just something missing, and that can be that sense of community spirit, which we have here.”
Miller points to this spirit as the fuel that motivates volunteers to organize and staff large community festivals, or to raise private money to build new community amenities.
“It’s amazing the world-class things that can be done in small towns. There are fewer reasons why ideas can’t happen in a small town than elsewhere,” Miller said. “The secret sauce is the community spirit. It’s really hard to find, but once you have it, it’s like a superpower.”
Small-town life can also provide a slower pace, a home with acreage, or a school system that offers children smaller class sizes with the ability to participate in many activities — plus, those intangibles and “secret sauce” that give each community its own personality and vibe.
If you want a home that’s even more rural, the region offers properties with room for horses, cattle and working farm operations just minutes from Manhattan’s amenities and job opportunities. It’s not unusual to see a working professional in Manhattan head home to tend to livestock before dinner or ride horses at sunset in the beautiful Flint Hills.
Here are some communities to explore if you’re considering a fresh start in the Greater Manhattan region. Click on the + sign to display information about each city.
Thousands of workers commute each morning along Highway 24 into Manhattan from Pottawatomie County. With an abundance of new housing options — and some quaint in-town historic homes — buyers can find both country acreage or suburban subdivisions at a variety of price ranges.
Directly east of the Blue River from the City of Manhattan is a cluster of rapidly growing subdivisions now referred to as Green Valley (because they branch off the Green Valley Road intersection with Highway 24).
Green Valley is a suburban, developed area within a larger, rural unincorporated area called Blue Township, which has a total population of about 5,000. However, Green Valley is NOT a city. While many discussions are happening among government bodies about how to best serve this quickly growing area and to provide amenities, its residents do not benefit from city services. Utilities in this area are a patchwork of rural water districts, City of Manhattan services that have been extended beyond the Blue River, and private enterprise. Services such as public safety, road maintenance and snow removal are provided by Pottawatomie County. The future governance of the area is uncertain.
Green Valley has grown to be one of the largest concentrations of people in Pottawatomie County, and is only about five to ten minutes from the city limits of Manhattan, offering a quick commute to downtown or the K-State campus. Many U.S. Army soldiers and their families also live here, driving daily to Fort Riley, home of the 1st Infantry Division, about 30 minutes to the west.
While Green Valley’s neighborhoods have a Manhattan address, many people choose to live here, outside of the city limits, because of widely available new housing options in the mid-range sweet spot, lower property taxes, a more rural atmosphere, and the fact that children in this area still attend Manhattan schools. In fact, Manhattan-Ogden USD 383 will be opening Oliver Brown Elementary School here in the fall of 2021, the first school the district has built in Pottawatomie County and outside of the Manhattan city limits. Middle and high school students are bused into Manhattan, where they attend one of two middle schools and Manhattan High, a 6A school (the largest size category in Kansas) with more than 1,800 students.
Some retail and professional services are located along Highway 24 between Manhattan and Wamego, and those offerings continue to grow; however, most people drive the short distance into town for shopping, dining, recreation and entertainment.
Green Valley is close to Pottawatomie County State Fishing Lake #2, a beautiful spot for fishing, camping and stargazing. Many of the neighborhoods in Green Valley also back up to rivers and creeks, which provide mature trees and beautiful views despite being newer subdivisions.
Slightly east of Blue Township is the City of St. George, which also has grown in recent years, adding five newer housing developments that are expected to provide 100 new homes. As a bedroom community nestled between Manhattan and Wamego, St. George does not offer many services, but it has three busy restaurants — Willie’s Hideout Bar & Grille, Moe’s Original BBQ, and the KAWffee Pot — along with a full-service convenience store that eliminates the need to make the 10-minute drive into Manhattan for a gallon of milk.
Despite its quick growth, St. George remains a community where everyone knows their neighbors, where kids walk to school and ride bikes all over town, and people feel safe. The town recently outgrew its elementary school building, which has now been converted to a K-4 school, with older students bused to the Rock Creek Junior/Senior High School (USD 323) nearby.
According to St. George City Council Member Debby Werth, houses in St. George sell quickly, primarily because people want their children to attend Rock Creek schools, which compete in the state’s 3A classification for sports and activities and have an excellent reputation. Rock Creek High School is consistently ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top 10 high schools in the state and is by far the smallest school to receive such an honor.
Werth reports that for a city of its size, St. George has invested heavily in its small police force, providing officers with all of the latest equipment needed to protect and serve. The city also just completed a $3 million water project to dig new wells because of increased demand.
While most people who live in St. George commute into Manhattan or Wamego for work, its residents are proud of the town’s independent identity and are actively planning their community’s future.
Wamego is a small town with big ideas. Several years ago, it revitalized itself by embracing the Kansas setting of The Wizard of Oz. Now the town features the OZ Museum, the OZ Winery, and a real Yellow Brick Road for tourists. The community throws an annual OZtoberfest that draws thousands. It also boasts the Wicked Marathon, a Boston Marathon-qualifier race that brings people to Wamego from across the country.
But pulling off events like the marathon doesn’t happen magically. It takes die-hard volunteers who believe their labor of love is crucial to bring visitors and dollars into the community.
“Every year, the people who make the marathon happen somehow make it happen because it is such a great opportunity to show off Wamego,” Darin Miller said. “It’s one of the hilliest marathon courses people have ever run — participants always comment they didn’t know Kansas had hills and trees!”
Wamego also boasts beautiful City Park, featuring the Schonhoff Old Dutch Mill, a regional landmark. Each spring, thousands of tulips bloom downtown and in City Park, an event celebrated with the Tulip Festival.
The highlight of each summer is Independence Day, for which Wamego is transformed into Boomtown USA. This top-rated fireworks display attracts as many as 50,000 people. The show is the finale that follows a carnival, a parade and other events. The fireworks are pulled off by a volunteer crew of self-proclaimed “pyromaniacs” and set to music broadcast on the radio.
In another example of community spirit at work, Miller pointed out recent construction of an Aquatics Center to rival any in the area, built with a significant portion of the budget coming from private donations.
“It was kind of insane, how so many people gave money to that project,” Miller said. “They’re still giving, and it’s done.”
He also pointed out with pride that WTC Communications (formerly Wamego Telephone Company) has laid fiber internet to every home and business in town, and did so nearly 15 years ago (and has now expanded into east Manhattan). This infrastructure is a huge asset for businesses big and small — and for remote workers.
“Lots of cities don’t have that,” Miller said. “People might not really believe it.”
Wamego USD 320 has two well-regarded elementary schools, a middle school and a 4A high school. The town supports its students, and residents frequently attend school-sponsored sports and events.
Wamego has many strong local employers including Caterpillar Work Tools, Wamego Health Center, R Tech Tool & Machine, KanEquip, and MS BioTec. The commute to Manhattan is about 15-20 minutes, and many Wamego residents work at Kansas State University or other Manhattan employers.
Between Wamego and Topeka is St. Marys, a town with a history that goes back 1847, when a Jesuit Mission that served as the tribal headquarters for the Potawatomi Tribe was founded on the bluffs of the Kansas River Valley. The area also served as one of the last stops on the Oregon-California Trail from 1847 to 1857. St. Marys is located about 20 to 30 minutes from either Manhattan or Topeka (the state capital).
Today, St. Marys is a bustling town due in great part to serving as the home of St. Mary’s Academy and College, owned and operated by the Society of St. Pius X, an international organization dedicated to maintaining traditional Catholicism. According to the St. Mary’s Priory website, people move from all over the world to live in St. Marys to benefit from the small-town atmosphere and to live and study in a largely Catholic community. The academy is currently building The Immaculata Church, which will be the largest church of its kind in the state.
Many St. Marys families are large, which has fueled population growth and has kept both the St. Mary’s Catholic educational system and local public schools (Kaw Valley USD 321) thriving. Because many children stay in the area after they finish school, housing is currently at a premium, but a few new developments are in the works to accommodate increased demand.
St. Marys offers a wide range of employment options, including a medical clinic and retirement home tied to Onaga’s Community HealthCare System , nearby Jeffrey Energy Center, and several thriving small and mid-sized employers, including Brinks Home Security, Custom Wood Products, and Sarto Countertops. The Onyx Collection in nearby Belvue (between Wamego and St. Marys), also employs many in the area, and has quickly become one of the largest employers in the county.
Other communities to check out along Highway 24 east of Manhattan — but within an easy commute — include Belvue and Rossville.
North of Manhattan is Tuttle Creek Reservoir, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project surrounded by several small towns and lakeshore neighborhoods. While agriculture is the primary economic driver in this area, these communities are profiting from Manhattan’s prosperity, and have steadily grown in their own right, with new amenities, services and housing opportunities.
To the west of the lake (and northwest of Manhattan) is the City of Riley. City Clerk Doris Fritz and Mayor Tim Sharp said that the city’s school district (Riley County USD 378) is a major draw for families to the town, which has continually grown each census period since 1940. The Riley County Grade School is a K-8 school with a student-to-teacher ratio of 12 to 1, and is located in the city itself, while the 3A Riley County High School pulls in students from several communities (including the far northwest edge of Manhattan) and is located a few miles north of Riley.
Sharp said that the city has all of the amenities of bigger communities, and that basically all of life’s everyday necessities can be taken care of in town — with Manhattan only about 20 minutes away, if you need additional options. The town currently is home to a new medical clinic and four newer neighborhoods, with about 60 new houses added over the past two decades. Many of Riley’s residents commute to Manhattan, Junction City or Fort Riley for work, although the town itself does have several employers including GTB Custom Meats, Ember Wood Sawmill, Schurle Signs and several restaurants such as The Farmhouse and the Riley Café.
Sharp says housing costs are lower than in Manhattan, although demand due to proximity to the university and Fort Riley keeps housing prices higher than in some other smaller Kansas towns.
One major perk for those who enjoy the outdoors is being equal distance to two major state parks and lakes — Milford and Tuttle Creek. Both parks are fantastic playgrounds for those who enjoy all of the amenities of the great outdoors, including boating, fishing, water sports, camping, hiking, mountain biking, ATVs, stargazing, bird watching and shooting sports.
On the north edge of Tuttle Creek are the neighboring towns of Randolph and Olsburg, both known for their proximity to the Fancy Creek State Park, their joint USD 384 Blue Valley School District, and many community events and festivals — all of which have attracted many younger families to the area in recent years.
Randolph today is about a mile east of its original location near the intersection of Highways 24 and 16. Randolph and ten other towns were relocated when Tuttle Creek Reservoir was built in the early 1960s to control downstream flooding. While the new town is located on higher ground, you can still sometimes see the ruins of the original town when the reservoir water level is low at Fancy Creek State Park, known for fantastic hiking and biking trails, a shooting range, campsites with RV hook-ups, hunting, fishing and boat access to the reservoir.
Randolph boasts an annual Independence Day Celebration the Friday and Saturday before July 4 each year, featuring a fish fry in City Park, a softball tournament, car show, soapbox derby, ice cream social, turtle races, a watermelon feed, a pedal tractor pull and a community barbecue — in addition to a fabulous fireworks display followed by music and dancing.
Olsburg, known for its rich Swedish heritage, has a beautiful city park and a community swimming pool, and is home to many annual events and festivals. A newer happening is the Annual Olsburg Land Utfärd, a traveling motorcycle poker race that had more than 200 participants at a recent event. The town has a festival every fall, and a Swedish Supper the first Saturday in December at the Olsburg Lutheran Church, which draws people to the community from miles around. Olsburg is also the gateway to the Pottawatomie County Barn Quilt Trail, which covers 22 counties in the Flint Hills. The Farmhouse, a grocery store and restaurant in Riley, also has a location in Olsburg.
Eric Neilson, broker-owner of United Country – Milestone Realty and Development, grew up on a farm near Randolph and is now developing a housing subdivision of 30 homes in Olsburg, as well as a new commercial district with housing. The new subdivision takes advantage of the state’s Rural Housing Incentive District (RHID) program, which allows developers to build homes on half-acre lots without any special tax assessments, helping to keep property taxes lower. Neilson said this means the same house built in Olsburg or Randolph is considerably more affordable than if it were built in a larger community.
The Blue Valley School District (USD 384) serves these two communities and the surrounding rural areas, with an elementary school in Olsburg and the combined 1A Blue Valley Junior/Senior High School in Randolph. Neilson said many families want their kids to attend a small district like Blue Valley so they can participate in every activity they want to.
“The beauty of a rural district is, if you want your kids to play football or sing in the choir, they can,” Neilson said. “Everyone can be actively involved in whatever they want to do.”
Between great schools and more affordable housing, Neilson reports that many young families have moved to the two communities in recent years.
“They love the fact they can work in Manhattan or Fort Riley but come home to a smaller community environment. That’s very appealing to people right now.”
Other communities to check out north of Manhattan, but within an easy commute, include Leonardville, Clay Center, and Green.
Geographically, Pottawatomie County is one of the largest counties in Kansas, even though its total population is only around 25,000. The northern half of the county has a strong agricultural heritage with several small towns. While many households farm in this part of the county, it’s common for residents to also commute into larger cities for employment.
If you’re looking for a community where your children and grandparents will be well cared for, with high-quality health care (and healthcare jobs) as well as affordable housing, look no farther than Onaga.
According to USD 322 Onaga School District board of education member and active community volunteer Jessica Venneberg, Onaga is the place to live if you’re looking for a true sense of community.
“Everyone gets involved in everything, and supports one another,” Venneberg said. “If someone is organizing a benefit, everyone shows up and helps.”
Venneberg would know. In addition to serving on the school board, she serves on her children’s school parent-teacher organization, the local chamber of commerce, and the town’s revitalization committee. Her husband is the fire chief and sits on the city council. Venneberg commutes to nearby Wamego for her day job as the executive assistant for the Pottawatomie County Economic Development Corporation, one of the founding partners of the Greater Manhattan Economic Partnership.
However, unlike many small towns, Onaga is not a bedroom community. Actually, more people commute into Onaga than away to work! This is in large part due to the Community HealthCare System, with its main hospital campus in Onaga. This rural healthcare system provides excellent, comprehensive care throughout northeast Kansas at its Onaga hospital, St. Marys clinic, seven family practice clinics throughout the region, and three combined nursing/assisted living senior care facilities.
Schools in Onaga are small (its high school competes at the 1A level), with pre-K through 12 all taught on one block. Venneberg says that people in this region love the fact that everyone knows each other’s names and looks out for each other’s children. School sports are a big part of the community, with the high school gym providing space to host several games at once.
Those considering a rural community might be interested to learn about building sites available within the City of Onaga — for one dollar. Landowners can hire any contractor they want to build their dream home, which might just overlook the airport or golf course. The cost of living in Onaga is lower than in much of the rest of the region, and homes with acreage are very affordable. Pre-existing homes are probably older, Venneberg said, but buyers will get much more home for the money in this area of the county.
For the most part, life in Onaga is self-sufficient. People don’t have to leave town for health care, schools or groceries, or for leisure activities like golfing, swimming at the local pool or enjoying public parks. However, when a change of pace is desired, it’s about 45 minutes to Manhattan or less to Wamego or St. Marys.
As the county seat of Pottawatomie County, Westmoreland is north of Wamego up picturesque state highway 99 (also known as the Road to Oz Highway). County business and judicial matters often bring visitors to town, but it’s the city’s quaint downtown businesses, small schools and community spirit that inspire people to call this city home.
Westmoreland has long been celebrated as a historic stop on the Oregon Trail, and its downtown today still offers many small shops full of antiques, wares, handmade products and re-purposed goods. The community hosts several annual events including its Summer Bash, Fantastic Finds on Highway 99 and the Fall Festival (antique fair), as well as the Haunted Hospital each October.
According to Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce President Kaylene Plummer, as of the time of this writing, all of the businesses in Westmoreland are locally owned.
“All money spent in the community goes back to the community,” Plummer said.
Groceries are available at the Oregon Trail Market, and the pharmacy The West Pharm provides handy household and car items, gifts and an ice cream sundae bar. The South 40 Café provides family-style cuisine, and the Morning Glory Bakery is known for its homemade cinnamon rolls, bierocks (beer-ocks, hand pies with beef, cabbage and onions) and fresh cookies.
Plummer said that while housing is somewhat limited, the community has been making an effort to revitalize older neighborhoods with newer homes, and the town has lots available for development at affordable prices.
Students attend the Rock Creek Schools, with Westmoreland Elementary located in town. Older students are bused to the award-winning 3A Rock Creek Junior/Senior High near St. George, consistently ranked one of the best high schools in the state. The Community HealthCare System operates a family practice clinic in Westmoreland.
On the edge of town, visitors can stop at the Oregon Trail RV Park, operated by the city. Adjacent to the park is a nine-hole disc golf course and the city’s swimming pool.
Other communities to check out northeast of Manhattan, but within an easy commute, include: Wheaton, Louisville, Emmett, and Havensville.
If you are contemplating a move to the Greater Manhattan region and have additional questions, please contact the Greater Manhattan Economic Partnership at 785-776-8829, and we’ll point you to the appropriate resources in our communities.