Reversing population declines in rural Kansas is a difficult challenge. But public and private initiatives that train leaders and provide financial incentives are promising steps in the right direction.
The Eagle reported last week on a program by the Kansas Sampler Foundation to nurture a new generation of leaders in rural Kansas. It will host two sessions in October to bring young Kansans together to help discuss the future of their communities.
“We want to empower their voices and help rural Kansas progress,” said foundation director Marci Penner.
The Kansas Leadership Center is also doing good work developing leaders. Each year it brings to Wichita about a thousand Kansans, many from rural areas, for leadership training.
Center president and CEO Ed O’Malley said that rural communities “need new champions to step forward and lead in ways we haven’t seen before.”
Growing rural Kansas is also a priority of Gov. Sam Brownback. The Rural Opportunity Zones initiative he developed exempts qualifying people who move from out of state to one of 50 rural Kansas counties from paying state income taxes for five years.
The tax exemption begins with the 2012 tax year, so state officials don’t know yet how many people are taking advantage of the incentive. But inquiries have been growing.
The state also launched a program that will pay up to $15,000 in student loans over five years for anyone with an associate, bachelor’s or postgraduate degree who moves to an opportunity zone. This program also applies to people who already live in Kansas.
Since the loan program began in July 2011, nearly 500 people have applied. More than 175 of those applicants have been from 35 states other than Kansas (and might also qualify for the income-tax exemption).
People won’t move to or remain in a community if there aren’t jobs. Brownback hopes the tax cut he signed this year, particularly the elimination of income taxes on several forms of businesses, will spur the economy and job growth. That remains to be seen.
Young families also want good schools. But state funding cuts are harming schools and causing some rural school districts to consolidate, creating long bus rides for some students.
Also, the state has been closing some of its offices, making it more difficult to access social services in rural areas. The availability of doctors and dentists is also a concern, as is the ongoing drought.
Still, rural Kansas has a lot to offer and can be a great place to raise a family. The leadership training and opportunity zone incentives can help remove barriers and encourage more people to make their home on the range.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee