Views from Kansas: Give rural Zones program a shot

Editor’s Note: Views from Kansas is a regular feature that highlights editorials and other viewpoints from across the state.

One program that actually has helped hold some people and bind them to rural Kansas has been the Rural Opportunity Zones plan adopted by the state a few years ago and supported by many Kansas counties.

The state program offers a five-year exemption from state income taxes to those who will live and work in one of 77 designated rural Kansas counties. In partnership with participating counties, the state will pay off up to $15,000 in student loan debt for those willing to settle in a zone county.

The program has been popular and many new settlers have taken advantage of both the tax forgiveness and the student-loan payments, but oddly enough, the program often is not what drew them to our counties.

County officials say most of these young people say they heard about the opportunity program only after they moved to an eligible county.

What that means is that the program is working, but it could do a lot more. It obviously hasn’t been promoted enough by the state, by the counties involved and by the economic development agencies.

Everyone even thinking about moving to rural Kansas should be told about this program before it’s too late.

And unfortunately, that day may be coming. Gov. Laura Kelly has been quoted as wanting to end the program. She says she’d like to focus on infrastructure, housing, downtown renewal and other programs.

We hope it isn’t just that former Gov. Sam Brownback and his administration conceived the Opportunity Zone program, because among all the efforts made to attract and keep people out here, this one makes sense.

Infrastructure – roads, water and sewer lines, hard stuff like that – is nice. It’s vital to any community’s economic life. But not very sexy. Few people will be attracted to a town because it has strong water lines.

Good schools, yes. Those are important. Housing is vital, and we need more. And downtown renewal is nice, but it’s been done again and again.

It’s good to have a spiffy downtown, but beautification won’t do much for us if there are no stores and offices to fill the buildings. Good streets and water lines are important, but no one ever chose a town based on those.

Pay people’s student loans and forgive their taxes for a while, people like that kind of thing. It’s direct and tangible.

Gov. Kelly, give us a chance here. This program, properly promoted, could be a real winner for rural Kansas. This is not the time to pull the plug.

— Originally published in the Oberlin Herald


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