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Archive for Sunday, May 3, 1992

RURAL COUNTIES PLAN FOR THEIR FUTURE

May 3, 1992

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Strategic planning sounds like a topic for discussion in a corporate board room or during military war games, but the concept has hit home for rural counties across Kansas as they plan for their economic future.

The Ottawa-Franklin County Economic Development Corp. (OFCED) recently received a $14,000 state grant to develop a countywide plan, said Brent Fogle, president of the organization.

The group hired Richard Caplan & Associates, a Lawrence consulting firm, to help collect and evaluate data. The 26-member steering committee held public forums in Wellsville, Pomona, Richmond and Ottawa to solicit public input on the county's strengths and weaknesses. It also mailed detailed surveys to a random 10 percent of the county's households and received about 30 percent of those surveys back.

"We'll use that information to focus on what we'll need to work on for improvement of the community," Fogle said, adding that three major trends surfaced through the meetings and the survey. "The housing shortage, lack of good-paying jobs and people want improved retail services."

OFCED formed task forces to study each issue, and the group is in the process of writing the county's strategic plan, he said.

Members hope to have the plan completed and approved by city councils and the county commission by the end of July and will apply for another grant to finance implementation.

"THIS IS OUR blueprint we're going to use for the next 10 years," Fogle said. "We don't want this to sit on a shelf. We want people to use it as a blueprint and a tool.

"It's strategies, ways to get things done. You have to anticipate what's happening in the future. I think the whole process has gotten a whole lot more people involved in the county, helped people realize we need to plan for the future instead of just letting it happen."

Fogle said Franklin County officials probably couldn't have tackled the project without the state grant money.

The Kansas Legislature passed the Strategic Planning Assistance Act in 1990, establishing a grant program through the State Department of Commerce for non-metropolitan counties to develop and implement economic development strategic plans.

To target rural counties, legislators exempted Shawnee, Sedgwick, Wyandotte, Leavenworth, Douglas and Johnson counties from eligibility.

JOHNNA THOMAS, director of the state program, said her office awarded 23 grants to 31 counties for the 1991 fiscal year, and expects to award the same number of grants for the 1992 fiscal year. The program will end after fiscal year 1993 unless the Legislature renews it, she said.

"I think the primary motivation was to provide an incentive to the rural counties to help them develop a grass-roots effort to plan for their future to get them involved in their own future instead of the state coming in and saying this is what you have to do," she said. "This way, counties are more likely to carry through and implement the plans."

The program offers two types of awards planning grants and action grants.

Planning grants are available for up to $20,000 and require a 25 percent local match. Counties can apply for the grants to develop countywide or multicounty strategic development plans.

ACTION GRANTS for up to $40,000 require a 100 percent match, but 75 percent of the county's contribution may be in labor, materials or services. They are available only to counties or multicounty units with comprehensive economic development plans in place. The money is used for implementation of the plan.

Approximately 65 percent of Kansas counties have developed strategic plans for economic development, Thomas said.

"If the Legislature renews for another year, I think we could cover the entire state," she said.

"The feedback we're getting from the local people is that it's been a wonderful experience, a very positive experience. Some of the counties are just going crazy with this. They're coming up with good ideas and they're carrying through. The time they commit to this is on their own and I really admire the work they've done."

JEFFERSON County developed a five-year strategic plan for economic development in 1989 and updated it last year, according to Bob Vernon, executive director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Commission.

A survey of the county's strengths and weaknesses in regard to development found a problem with the water supply, so planners incorporated a wholesale water project into the strategic plan, Vernon said. The county applied for a 1991 strategic planning action grant to finance a feasibility study for the project, but was denied funding, he said.

The economic development commission plans to submit another application in hopes of securing a 1993 grant.

"We have to get the infrastructure in place before we can attract new businesses," Vernon said.

In the meantime, the organization is trying to capitalize on tourism by promoting recreational activities throughout the county and particularly at Perry Lake.

Developing a strategic plan helped forge bonds between rural areas and the small towns in Jefferson County, Vernon said.

"Jefferson County's only 16,700 people," he said. "We've got towns that range from 1,170 down to 400. The towns aren't big enough to do much by themselves, so the county worked together."

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