Special to The Gardner News
Attracting economic development to the area is a continuous work in progress, a labor of residents and local government working together in efforts to improve the area economy. It is now, and it was 25 years ago.
Today, Steve Shute, Gardner mayor, is seeking to bring fiber internet service to the city because he believes it’s necessary to remain competitive and connected with the world.
Twenty-five years ago, before the internet and cell phones, the community put years of effort into getting expanded telephone landline service because it was necessary to become competitive and connected with the world.
Remote and rural
Twenty-five years ago, residents believed the biggest obstacle holding Gardner economic growth back was the image of being isolated from the larger metro area.
Prior to 1993, all phone calls from Gardner, Edgerton, and Spring Hill were a long distance call to anywhere in the KC metro area.
Even a call from what is now New Century AirCenter to a Gardner location less than a mile away was a 1+ long distance call.
In the late 1980’s, people in those communities started to see that long distance telephone service was a factor that slowed and discouraged economic growth.
Phyllis Thomen, Gardner mayor 1981-1989, recalls that people were talking about it towards the end of her term.
“It had been talked about. Right at first it seemed like, this is never going to happen, but there were a lot of people that wanted it,” said Thomen.
Among the reasons people wanted it was, for example, if you needed to call the courthouse in Olathe, it was a long distance call – and the courthouse wouldn’t return long distance calls either.
If your job was in the metro area, and you needed to call your office from home, it was long distance.
For local businesses that communicate daily with metro customers, it was a formidable barrier.
The Gardner News championed the idea of a metro plus line. Through the early 1990’s the paper published a series of articles and editorials reporting the potential costs and benefits.
“Newspapers are a cornerstone of a community, and along with city officials, The Gardner News worked to get metro calling in the area communities,” said Rhonda Humble, publisher.
Another long time resident and business owner supporting the change was Shirley Brown-VanArsdale of Bruce Funeral Home.
“Businesses would not move out here and establish because it was long distance. And it was hurting the growth of Gardner tremendously. So everybody, from the mayors to the chamber, worked on it for years,” Brown-VanArsdale recalls.
Carol Lehman, Gardner mayor 1989-2009, saw the topic gain momentum during her first few years in office.
“I had real estate agents and developers telling me that one of the impediments to our development was that people had to dial long distance to call to Gardner, so we started talking about it and looking at it,” said Lehman.
Connection established, growth explodes
Phone rates are regulated and allowing metro plus calling between Kansas City’s Southwestern Bell and Gardner’s local Sprint/United company, required approval of the Kansas Corporation Commission. Several locals, including Lehman, Humble and VanArsdale testified about the issue in commission hearings.
KCC gave approval and Sprint United Telephone-Midwest made MetroPlus service available to Gardner, Edgerton and Spring Hill on July 1, 1993. The mayors of those towns were invited to make the first MetroPlus calls at 8 a.m. that morning at the United Telephone office in downtown Gardner at 107 S. Elm.
There was no change for those who didn’t want it, they kept their existing Gardner phone number with the 884 prefix. An 884 number means you still had to dial 1+ to call metro and pay by the minute long distance charges when you did.
Those that did subscribe to MetroPlus paid about $25 per month for the optional service and got a phone number with a new prefix of 856. They were now a local call to and from the metro plus area.
“I really see that as the time when things opened up for Gardner. When that stigma of having to dial long distance, even just to call Olathe, when that stigma was gone, it opened up Gardner. It was Gardner’s turn to have people start coming to us. That’s when the developers started knocking and that’s when the home builders came,” notes Lehman.
“It was a critical time in Gardner’s economic development back then, and it did make a huge difference,” says Brown-VanArsdale.
“We did it,” Humble said. “Gardner pulled together and got it done. Surrounding communities of Spring Hill, Wellsville and DeSoto also saw the benefit.”
According to stats from World Population Review, in 1993 the population of Gardner was 4,839.
In the first seven years after MetroPlus, the population nearly doubled – to 9,396 in 2000. The population doubled again in the next ten years, reaching 19,123 in 2010. Since then population growth has leveled off to between 1 and 2 percent per year.
Blazing the trail
Fast forward to today’s world of digital communications and the topic of landline phone services hardly seems relevant – however MetroPlus dialing still exists.
A spokesperson for CenturyLink provided current information:
“CenturyLink provides local service in Gardner and is one of multiple competitive providers. CenturyLink’s local calling area for Gardner includes Gardner, Edgerton and Wellsville exchanges.”
“CenturyLink does offer its customers in Gardner MetroPlus — an optional calling plan for unlimited calling to and from the greater Kansas City area, which is serviced by AT&T. MetroPlus allows customers to place calls into the greater Kansas City area without dialing a 1. The residential rate for MetroPlus is $3/month, although MetroPlus is included with many CenturyLink bundled offerings. MetroPlus is just one option CenturyLink makes available to our customers for greater calling scopes, but the most popular option is unlimited toll.”
MetroPlus is still an option in 2018, but because it’s included in several bundled plans, and because today’s technology offers a variety of options, it’s likely that few purchase it as a single feature. Many with 884 numbers are using cloud based systems or other alternatives to avoid long distance charges.
The world continues to move forward with mobile technology, and landline services, like MetroPlus, seem to be on the way to becoming historical trivia.
On the other hand, in context of the history of Gardner’s economic growth, the status is more than trivial. It stands out as a very early, and very effective community effort, an important first step onto a path towards economic growth that the community continues traveling today.