Task force takes up rural challenge

Group interested in saving small towns has first meeting

? It’s not just young people who are abandoning rural Kansas. The elderly, too, are leaving.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on Tuesday launched a new task force aimed at solving what is perhaps the state’s most intractable problem: rural decline and the demise of the small towns that for much of the state’s history served as Kansas’ cultural and economic backbone.

“I’m asking you to help us figure out the best way to make sure that 20 years from now, we have thriving communities,” Sebelius said to the 40-member Rural Life Task Force.

Marci Penner, of Inman, one of the co-chairmen of the task force’s steering committee, asked that all the members bring new ideas to the effort.

“If you’re just here for your special interests, then go back to your lobbyists,” she said.

The task force has been organized into four teams that will study two issues each and give Sebelius recommendations before the January start of the 2004 legislative session and beyond.

“I have a personal stake and passion to see rural Kansas has a bright future,” said Kansas Agriculture Secretary Adrian Polansky, who also serves on the task force’s steering committee.

Rural deterioration

With nearly half the state’s people living in four urban counties, much of rural Kansas is losing population.

While the conventional thinking is that mostly young people are deserting the countryside, Liz Hendricks, an Elk County commissioner, said her county was having trouble even keeping the elderly.

“They’re leaving our area because it’s an hour to get to the doctor,” she said.

She said a few young families were returning to the area because they wanted to raise their children in a small-community atmosphere, but many of those parents had difficulty finding jobs.

“If we had more access to broadband and better roads — there are people who want to live in rural America,” she said.

Elk County’s situation is similar to that of many rural counties across Kansas and the Plains: Its population is decreasing, while also growing older and poorer.

Elk County’s population dropped 2 percent in the 1990s. The percentage of the population there age 65 or older is nearly twice that of the rest of the state — 25.3 percent compared with 13.3 percent. And 13.8 percent of Elk County residents earn below the poverty level, compared with 9.9 percent of Kansans statewide.

Like many of the task force members, Hendricks holds several positions in her community. She is a county commissioner, owner of a small cow-and-calf operation and a real estate agent.

Input from the countryside

Sebelius said it was important to get task force members who live outside Topeka’s “470-beltway.”

“They live the life they are trying to promote,” she said.

Dan Nagengast, of Lawrence, is another co-chairman, and Marvin Stottlemire, Topeka, will serve as a facilitator. Stottlemire is assistant director of the Kansas University Public Management Center.

Stottlemire said the task force groups would come up with “stories” about rural life from the past and present and then develop a future vision. The groups then will construct “pathways” to achieve that vision.

Polansky urged the members to “get away from agendas.”

The task force was divided into teams on energy and infrastructure; health and human services; agriculture and diversified economy; and government and community empowerment. The teams will start meeting next month in Inman.