Archive for Sunday, May 11, 2003

Panel: Leaders key to rural growth

May 11, 2003


— Heaven helps those who help themselves, the adage says. But a little help from the state can go a long way, especially in rural development, a Kansas Senate panel has concluded.

The Senate Commerce subcommittee, led by Republican Sen. Nick Jordan of Shawnee, studied rural development during the past few months and issued a report as the 2003 session drew to a close.

Jordan wrote the report to help frame debate, expected later this year and in the next legislative session, on rural development as Kansas copes with recession and the effects of drought on agriculture.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius promised during her campaign last year to call a rural development summit, and legislative leaders said finding ways to improve the rural economy was an important priority.

According to figures released by state Agriculture Secretary Adrian Polansky, drought cost Kansas farmers and ranchers at least $1.1 billion in 2002. Net farm income averaged $10,000 -- about $35,000 less than what is needed to pay living expenses and taxes.

Moreover, job creation from 1989 through 2000 averaged 2.4 percent in metropolitan parts of Kansas, 1.8 percent statewide and just 1.3 percent in rural areas.

The Senate panel's suggestions for rural Kansas include developing a long-range approach; developing rural leaders who are committed to a community's success and have expertise in helping entrepreneurs; avoiding duplication programs; and taking advantage of changing technology.

"Rural economic development is about sustainability," Jordan wrote. "Our goal in rural development shall be to help towns to help individuals and families be the best they can be at being themselves and providing for themselves in new, innovative ways."

Senate Commerce Chairwoman Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, said existing efforts need to be given time to nurture development.

"I'm not sure legislation is the first thing needed," she said.

One such initiative -- the enterprise facilitation program, started in 2002 -- uses local expertise and resources to encourage entrepreneurs to start or expand business. Grants were awarded to five programs through community development block grants.

Under the program, local leaders are to identify potential entrepreneurs and connect them with the resources to get businesses running. The goal is 10 to 15 new businesses in each region each year, with the program eventually becoming self-sufficient.

Brownlee and Jordan said their experience watching Johnson County flourish with private-public partnerships gave them hope for rural areas.

"You can create synergies in a community with just a few people," Brownlee said. "Hopefully, this will light a fire."

Sen. Jay Emler, R-Lindsborg, a member of the subcommittee, said he was struck by the number of programs available to encourage economic activity in rural Kansas. But the results could be better, he added.

"It seems to me that we don't have a focal point to help entrepreneurs tap into and use the resources," he said.

Emler cited the city of McPherson as an example of the benefits of economic diversity. The presence of a large plastics company helps the community weather tough times in agriculture, he said.

In the report, Jordan wrote that rural development was as much about sustaining a quality of life as creating jobs.

"Much of our efforts in rural areas have been focused on attracting manufacturing or commodity production in agriculture," he wrote.

"However, when we probe further, we usually find that the more precise goal is that current residents wish that they, their family and their friends could more easily find the economic means to stay in the community, while achieving an improved standard of living."

Jordan said that goal requires creating a stable work force -- farm and nonfarm -- to sustain a community's demand for goods and services and preserve the quality of rural life.

"I hope we come back next session and don't dilly dally," Jordan said. "We need to do more than just lip service."

¢ Develop a long-range approach to economic development¢ Develop rural leaders who are committed to a community's success and have expertise in helping entrepreneurs.¢ Avoid duplicating programs.¢ Take advantage of changing technology, including the Internet.¢ Examine how to make capital more available to entrepreneurs.¢ Develop a mechanism for receiving large donations for community projects and help create a statewide, regional or local foundation to fund projects in rural communities.¢ Develop stronger relationships with the state universities, community colleges and other schools.¢ Develop a program to encourage the purchase and renovation of downtown buildings in rural communities, perhaps by developing heritage districts with special tax breaks.¢ Examine tax and other policies to reduce barriers for entrepreneurs.¢ Encourage better rural air transportation.

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