In the tiny towns and neighborhoods of Kansas, there is reason to hope.
A new program launched last month by the Kansas Sampler Foundation in Inman, the We Kan Network and the Reflective Group in Baldwin City is aimed at helping make dreams come true.
It is called KanStarter.
It is an online crowd-funding site that may be one of the first of its kind in the nation, said Mike Bosch, co-founder and CEO of Reflective Group, a technology company.
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“There is no other crowd-funding programs that have partnered with a state from a tax-credit perspective the way we have,” Bosch said.
Tax credits from the Kansas Department of Commerce Community Service Tax Credit program helped make the KanStarter program possible, he said.
The concept is similar to Kickstarter, an online funding platform for creative projects such as music and art, only this focuses on Kansas towns, communities and neighborhoods.
The idea started with Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation.
When Penner first visited every town in Kansas in 2002 and 2003 for work on a Kansas Explorers book, she noticed the need to help communities fund small projects. Of the 626 towns in Kansas, 75 percent have less than 1,500 people, Penner said.
There simply are not enough people in each individual community to get projects done.
“It’s not that these people aren’t working hard,” Penner said. “It’s not that they are not giving and trying their hardest, but this is about critical mass.
“In small towns, you often have the same people end up doing all the work and giving all the money. This is a way that alumni and others who want to help can donate from afar.”
For some of these communities, grants are not an option.
“Think about the number of projects that are lying on the floor that didn’t make the match for a grant,” Penner said. “They didn’t have a grant writer or their project wasn’t big enough for a grant.
“With this, I’m hoping we can do projects to help the homeless, the schools and communities like Piqua, which is unincorporated, obtain a new water system.”
Four communities were selected a few months ago to test the program: Burdett, Plains, Wilson and Yates Center. Others will follow beginning in January.
Funding goals range from $5,090 to $19,620.
Meade County’s Plains, off of U.S. 54, boasts of having the widest main street in America – the width of Grand Avenue is nearly half a block wide. Currently, the town’s 146 residents have to drive either 30 miles round-trip to Meade for the closest grocery store or 55 miles round-trip to Liberal.
Plains residents want to buy a downtown lot to build a grocery store. They need $5,096 to buy the land. Donors can purchase a square foot of ground in Plains for 95 cents. So far, they have raised $1,000 in their “Get Dirt” campaign.
“Meade’s grocery store is small,” said Jeanne Roberts, who serves on the Plains “Get Dirt” committee. “The road between Meade and Liberal is a two-lane and is one of the heaviest-traveled truck routes in the United States. It is a dangerous highway.”
Eventually, the community will apply for another KanStarter project. But for now, the idea is to buy the land and then fund the grocery store.
The Grand Avenue Market would be owned by the community as a nonprofit corporation, Roberts said. Some of its services would include fresh meat and produce, nutrition education programs, a commercial demonstration kitchen, prepared meals to go, shopping companion services, online ordering of groceries, grocery delivery, information for food assistance programs and a pharmacy prescription pick-up site.
“This will be our small town’s answer to healthy food,” Roberts said.
Pawnee County’s Burdett is the hometown of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.
In the 1960s, the town’s 245 residents put in a miniature golf course, which a half-century later is showing signs of neglect and deterioration. Burdett residents envision reconstructing the course with a solar system theme so new generations can play.
The town’s “Rediscover Pluto” project needs $10,900 to put in new turf and rock and redesign the course with nine planets and a sun.
“This is about rejuvenating the community and providing more activities for our kids to do,” said Katie Hammeke, president of Burdett PRIDE.
In Wilson, the community’s 1901 limestone Czech Opera House was destroyed by fire in 2009. Only the walls remain along with the Opera House marquee.
The town’s 763 residents want to first restore the marquee, which is estimated to cost $19,620. So far, they have raised $953. Their goal is to eventually restore the shell of the building into an open-air amphitheater.
“To have the marquee restored is a symbol to us that we will get this done,” said Allison Ford, president of the Czech Opera House board. “This gives us hope that we can get our small town back.
“We know it won’t be what it used to be, but it will help. Hopefully other organizations will see if we can meet our goal, then they can try.”
Yates Center is working on a bicycle and hiking trail around the lake and golf course. The South Owl Lake Trail Archway is expected to cost $7,630. So far, $1,740 has been raised.
“This is about keeping communities vibrant,” said Andrea Springer, who serves on the Kansas Sampler’s board of directors. “This is a funding mechanism that engages people and their alumni and allows communities to reach out around the world. It garners community support and has to be projects that engage everybody.”
Roberts said she is amazed with the number of people she doesn’t know who already have donated to the Plains project.
“They are philanthropic people who I guess liked our project and donated,” she said.
Bosch, whose Reflective Group designed the software for the program, said KanStarter allows everyday people a chance to become a philanthropist.
“You can look at a project and say, ‘Here is $25,’ or if they need a bucket of nails, you can say, ‘Here is a bucket of nails,’ ” he said.
“It is a great way to have a lasting impact on smaller communities,” Bosch said.
How to help
If you’d like to donate or find out more about the KanStarter program, go to www.kanstarter.com or contact Marci Penner at the Kansas Sampler Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 620-585-2374.