Fifty Kansas counties have lost 10% of their population since 2000. The state and county governments are recruiting residents with tax breaks, land offers, and major help repaying student loans.
The state of Kansas is enticing wayward natives to return. The pitch begins:
There’s something special about life in rural Kansas. Something authentic and wholesome. Something that makes it the ideal place to live, work and raise a family.
Kansas most wants its native daughters and sons to come back to the 50 counties that have lost 10 percent or more of population since 2000 — to inhabit small towns on lonely roads leading to smaller towns that teeter on the verge of losing what’s left of their jobs, services, and cultural amenities. Kansas is waving tax incentives and student loan reimbursement as bait.
I am a Kansas native, so when I first heard about Kansas Rural Opportunity Zones, my heart skipped a beat. I grew up in the metropolitan Kansas City area but went to college in the town of Emporia, in east central Kansas. Just outside of my door, the bluestem grassland Flint Hills dispelled the popular image of Kansas as wheat monoculture. I fell in love with those rugged rolling hills that no plow had ever broken.
Time and life took me back to Kansas City, then to Wyoming, which in many ways reminded me of the Flint Hills. Just last year I moved to eastern Iowa, also very rural but considerably cultivated. I would have no trouble acclimating to life on the west coast of Kansas, or in any of the rural communities in danger of wholesale boarding-over. Not wanting my husband either to have a heart attack or to kill me, I kept to myself this urge to return to the land of large twine balls and deep hand dug wells — geographic center of the contiguous U.S.
But I vowed to learn more about Kansas’s “repatriation” effort. I contacted Chris Harris, Rural Opportunity Zone (ROZ) program manager with the Kansas Department of Commerce. He’s a Kansas native, serial resident of several small towns, and recent graduate of a Kansas college: the perfect profile of the type of person Kansas wants to retain or see return.
I asked Harris why dying rural communities and counties shouldn’t just be allowed to die. After all, if people don’t want to live in towns where fresh produce and feature films are at least an hour’s round-trip away, why should Kansas give away good tax money to talk them into it? No place lasts forever, I said. Maybe the kindest thing is to put that dog down.
Harris, dismissing that solution, put the problem into economic development terms. “Employers all around Kansas are actively looking for qualified employees, and they can’t always find them. If businesses close, population decreases, and that impacts school enrollment, healthcare, everything the community has to offer.”
Harris acknowledged that there has long been a trend of young people leaving for urban areas where they can get jobs and be around other young people who might be spouse material one day. But he also spoke of the misperception that small towns in rural areas have little to offer once those young people are ready to settle down and raise families; urban areas, he said, are “perceived” to offer more opportunity. Harris said the state, and the ROZ counties, want to find people who’ve studied for work in fields like health care, agriculture, manufacturing and engineering and to show them the way. Entrepreneurs are especially sought after, Harris said.
The state and many counties have offered incentives in the past to attract businesses. But now many rural counties are becoming “aggressive” in their approach, he said, partnering with the state in this ROZ program and even offering additional incentives. For example, if you want to start a business in Greeley County, Kansas, the county will give you commercial land. For free.
Each county has a different set of ROZ initiatives, but the basic plan is this. You can qualify for an income tax waiver if you established residency in a ROZ county on or after July 1, 2011; if you have lived outside Kansas for five or more years immediately prior to establishing residency in a ROZ county; if you earned less than $10,000 in Kansas Source Income in each of the five years immediately prior to establishing residency in a ROZ county.
Some counties not only offer this tax waiver, they also offer student loan payment reimbursement, regardless of where you attended college. If you establish residency in a ROZ county after July 1, 2011 and on or after the date on which the county opts-in to the student loan program, if you hold an associate’s, bachelor’s or post-graduate degree, if you have an outstanding student loan balance, Kansas and the county will do a 50/50 match to reimburse you for your loan payments.
Sounds sweet. But will it be enough to entice folks to pioneer once again on the Kansas frontier?
Denney Clements takes a broader view, considering all 80 Kansas counties that aren’t growing much, not just the 50 in the program. He is a retired Kansas journalist who has made a living being skeptical of state government. But he thinks the ROZ incentive sounds like a great idea, with caveats.
“Observers, me included, wonder whether that incentive is enough to attract people to counties with declining or non-existent job bases. I do hope the plan helps, though, as the slow death of more than 80 counties is sad to behold. The real need is to keep young people there at home after high school, but the allure of Denver, Kansas City, Wichita, Dallas, Oklahoma City and other cities in the region is hard for most to resist.”
Clements doubts people interested in farming will make a big rush to enter the program, partly because land prices are currently so high. However, he said, other forms of entrepreneurship could be more attractive for those interested in the rural Kansas experience. He explained that there’s a currently a push to bring high-speed Internet to counties that don’t already have it.
“There’s also a critical shortage of dentists and doctors in rural Kansas, though that’s more of a concern for older people than for young people in good health. Some of the counties on the ROZ list, such as Marion, are attractive places, while others west of the 98th meridian are less attractive, scenery-wise. I personally like the high plains, but others find that region oppressive.”
I’m with Clements on that one: the more wide open, the better I like it. In fact, there are those who argue vast stretches of western Kansas should be rid of towns altogether and reclaimed by the native prairie, a theory advanced by Frank and Deborah Popper, advocates for a return to the “buffalo commons” which was once the natural environment of the plains. They argue that an agricultural way of life in much of the Great Plains is not sustainable. The Poppers first introduced their idea in 1987, and with the current cycle of hot dry conditions, the suggestion that buffalo take over the prairie doesn’t sound like a terrible option.
I spoke about the Poppers’ theory with Peg Britton, who for the last 10 years has run the KansasPrairie.net blog from her home in Ellsworth, in central Kansas. Ellsworth County is not part of the ROZ program. That’s because Ellsworth is an easy commute to the magnet community of Salina and its community college, airport, county seat, and regionally important highways. It’s also because Ellsworth has started doing very well in recent years.
“We got a state prison. Then came a performing arts center. Then we got a John Deere, a hospital, a grocery store, a Dollar General, and a new daycare center. If you haven’t been to Ellsworth in awhile, you wouldn’t recognize it,” Britton said.
Britton thinks the ROZ is a good idea, “if they put some money into it.” She has heard lots of reasons to leave Kansas, from rising property taxes and diminishing opportunities to the “conservative political culture.” She’s also heard plenty of plans to save rural Kansas during her 83 years, and even entertains the buffalo commons idea, especially in light of recent droughts.
“There is nothing that will destroy a town faster than no water,” she said. “The Ogallala Reservoir is down, the Smoky Hill River is low, cattle ranching is hard right now.”
Britton sees some of the western tier counties slipping almost beyond the range of hope, if something doesn’t encourage people to stay or return there. “Western Kansas has turned into Eastern Colorado. There’s not enough money to keep a good thing going, like the beautiful churches, homes, things that form a vibrant community.”
Try telling that to Dayna Bechard, 33, who with her husband, Travis Elliott, has just moved to Tribune, Kansas, smack in the middle of that western tier. Tribune is in Greeley County, as in Horace Greeley, who ran the Tribune newspaper and wrote that encouraging line, “Go west, young man!” There are two towns in Greeley County: Horace and Tribune. It was for life in Tribune, population 748, that this young couple left an active professional and social scene in the Kansas City area for life on the high plains.
Bechard grew up in a small town in Kansas with only dirt streets, not far from Salina, and said she had no desire to return there. But her husband, originally from Tribune, had always wanted to return to western Kansas if he could. His family operates an insurance company there, and when the time was right, he was able to join his father in business. So Bechard, with a bachelor’s degree in art history, and a master’s degree, and the student loans to prove it, was game to try. She’d worked in marketing and business development for a pharmaceutical company, and also for a culinary school in Kansas City. Combined with her experience working in restaurants during college, Bechard said she had the skills and was ready to fulfill her dream of opening a restaurant.
“Two years ago I was living the corporate life. It is amazing how timing works,” she said. They found a former restaurant for sale in Tribune, and purchased that building. They decided that was a better choice for them than the free land opportunity Greeley County provides. They’ve remodeled the space extensively and located local vendors for most of the food they will serve. Western Kansas is cattle county, so finding beef was easy, though poultry was a little more difficult, Bechard said. Fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant, and things like local beers, wines, barbecue sauces and salad oils are plentiful from Kansas City or Denver. A plaque in the restaurant lists all the vendors who make their farm-to-table menu possible.
Bechard will prepare “American comfort food” dishes such as those she’s always made, just in larger quantities. Fried chicken, meatloaf, fresh salads and sandwiches, even rainbow trout and Mexican night items are on the list. Elliott, who also has considerable restaurant experience, will man the barbecue smoker. They plan to hire four employees in the coming months, and perhaps more once Bechard gets the recipes finalized and can train someone else in the kitchen.
With all that food, Bechard and Elliott feel confident customers will be plentiful. There were some logistical details that delayed the opening just a bit, and Bechard says “everyone in town kept asking when we’ll open.” They officially opened for business in mid-August.
Local diners should be loyal customers of Elliott’s GastroPub. But will that base be enough?
Noting the long distances between communities in Western Kansas, Bechard said, “Everybody out here drives.” That makes their location at the intersection of two highways especially fortuitous. “We have constant traffic, like cars, bikers, trucks, and antiquers.” She plans to encourage the return of the local farmers market, hosting it in the restaurant’s large parking lot. That would be a good way to drum up interest in their restaurant, of course, but it would also save her the drive to the out-of-town farmers market where she purchases goods for the restaurant.
In spite of the lack of Kansas City amenities—major sports teams, numberless restaurants, thousands of employers—Bechard said she loves Tribune and western Kansas. “This is quite the little community here. There is lots of farming money so the streets are paved, there’s a nice downtown shopping area, and the people are super-excited about anybody opening a new business.”
And the views?
“You can see for miles. You can see forever, but you can’t see anything!”
So far, according to Chris Harris with the Department of Commerce, 454 people have applied for one of the ROZ programs. Of that number, 75 to 80 percent of them qualify. How many of them will return to Kansas to take up the “authentic and wholesome life” remains to be seen. Harris said they’ll define success not just as stopping population loss, but by stabilizing or increasing population in the counties.
For myself, I won’t be going home again, but I’ll sure stop by for a visit. I’ll want to re-experience the Kansas that shaped me, full of what Peg Britton calls “all those quirky things that Kansas is famous for.” There’s a barb-wire museum on my to-do list.
Native Kansan and Wyoming transplant Julianne Couch moved to Bellevue, Iowa, in 2011. Her book Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy is due from University of Nebraska Press next year.