State program draws graduates to rural Kansas; new counties to be included

By Nikki Wentling

To see which counties are designated as Rural Opportunity Zones, click here.

Click to enlarge.

Ten years ago, Lee Waldron took a leap of faith. He was a high school senior living in Bakersfield, Calif., a city of more than 300,000 people and had received a football recruitment letter from Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kan. — a rural town of less than 3,000. Waldron had never visited Tabor; he had never been to Kansas. But, at 17 years old, he decided to move 1,500 miles away and change the course of his life forever.

“I just kind of rolled the dice,” he said.

In 2008, a year after graduating from Tabor with a Bachelor of Arts in secondary education, he moved back to California to be a youth minister and high school football coach. However, after four years in the “big city” and the birth of their daughter, Lydia, Waldron’s wife Sara Jo, a Tabor alum and Kansan, wanted to move back home.

So, nine years later, Waldron took another leap. For the second time, he decided to leave California, this time with a wife and daughter, to accept a job at his alma mater.

Waldron benefits from Rural Opportunity Zones incentives

When his in-laws found out about the potential move, they sent  a newspaper clipping about Kansas’ Rural Opportunity Zones, a program established by the Department of Commerce that provides incentives for college grads to move to designated areas of the state. The program was put into effect in June 2011, the same month the Waldrons moved back.

“We were disappointed because Marion County wasn’t on the list,” Waldron said. “We checked every week to see if Marion had opted in yet.”

Two months after their move, in August 2011, Marion County accepted a resolution to budget for the Rural Opportunity Zones, and Waldron became Marion’s first and only participant. Now, he receives funds each year to pay his student loan debt.

“It just happened to be perfect,” Waldron said. “She likes the small town. We both do.”

Program established to reverse population declines

Gov. Sam Brownback and the legislature created the ROZ program after reviewing the 2010 census and acknowledging the problem of population declines in rural Kansas. Forty counties had experienced losses in population of more than 10 percent. These became the original designated areas of the program, with legislature tacking on 10 more before the bill was passed in March 2011.

The program offers income tax waivers and student loan payments of up to $3,000 per year for five years to college graduates who establish residency in a designated area. Income tax waivers are only available to those moving from out of state.

The Department of Revenue handles the income tax waivers, while the Department of Commerce and the county each fund half of the student loan debt payments.

Now, a year since the program was created, there have been 265 applicants, 75 percent of which have been approved and are living in 43 out of the 44 counties that have passed resolutions to fund the student loan payments.

“Individuals typically wanted to move back, or were open to the idea, but this helps make it economically feasible,” said Chris Harris, program manager of the Rural Opportunity Zones. “It lowers that barrier to entry.”

County commissions initially skeptical

Twenty-four more counties are in the process of being added to the ROZ list.

“Right now it’s attached to the House of Representatives house reform bill and it will be in conference committee,” Harris said. “We should find out in early May.”

If these counties are added, Harris and his team will work with the county commissioners to pass the resolutions that will provide funding for the student loan payment portion of the program.

“At the beginning, we weren’t quite sure what the response would be,” Harris said. “There was a lot of skepticism on the part of the counties.”

This hesitation to fund the program’s incentives was apparent in Pratt County. Jan Scarbrough, director of the Pratt Area Chamber of Commerce, said she met with the county commission on three occasions to discuss the funding.

Scarbrough’s first meeting with the commission was unsuccessful, but when she went back a second time they were more receptive. Scarbrough outlined for them the benefits the program would have on the county.

“These people are going to move here. Probably at least some of them will have kids in our schools. They’ll be shopping here, they’ll buy homes here, they’ll tag their cars here,” she said. “It’s a win-win.”

Scarbrough was asked back to a third commission meeting.

“When I went back that third time, they signed the resolution,” she said.

Harris said that this struggle to gain the participation of the counties would not be an issue with the 24 new zones.

“We were asking the first 50 to do it on faith,” he said. “But now, going back a year later, we can say we have 265 applicants, 86 of them from out of state. We have a more compelling argument this summer than we did last summer.”

Scarbrough shows others the benefits of rural living

When asked why young professionals would want to live in a rural area, Scarbrough described her own story.

“I grew up here. When I left, I went to the big city like so many kids out this way do,” she said.

That big city was Detroit, where Scarbrough lived for several months while working as a stewardess for United Airlines.

“I lived downtown,” she said. “Smack in the middle of the city. It was just exciting as heck to me.”

Scarbrough then moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., where she got married and had children. Once it was time to send her kids to elementary school, the family relocated.

“We moved to a town about the size of Pratt,” she said. “It was a place where I knew that people would be watching out for my kids. That’s what the whole small town thing is about; it’s family, it’s community, it’s everybody pulling together.”

Now, Scarbrough is working to give others the experience of living in a small town. She asks businesses for funding, works with the commissioners to lay out a budget and arms professionals with the information they need to recruit new employees.

“It could make a real difference to somebody,” she said.

A  different upbringing

Scarbrough’s desire for her kids to grow up in a small town, like she did, led her back to rural Kansas. For Waldron, it was the desire to give his daughter a childhood that he was unable to experience.

“My daughter will have a different upbringing,” Waldron said. “In California, there’s more people, more diversity. A lot of people are into themselves and they’ll do whatever it takes to get where they need to be. You come to Kansas and there is a more team-oriented, selfless attitude. People work together. A lot of people are willing to help each other.”

One concern the state initially had about the ROZ program is that participants would take advantage of the incentives and leave after the five years of receiving benefits concluded. However, because of their age, marital status and their chosen career fields, Harris expects most of the recipients to establish roots and remain in the counties. Waldron is one of those who plan to stick around.

“There is a possibility that I could be in Marion County for the rest of my life,” he said.

When Waldron made the decision to move to Hillsboro to attend college, he did not know what to expect. He did not know that 10 years later he would be buying a house, putting his daughter in school and working in a town of less than 3,000 people, 45 minutes away from the nearest Starbucks.

“It feels small sometimes,” Waldron said. “But it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s where I got my degree, met my wife and where I’ve come back to live.”

To hear more from program manager Chris Harris about the logistics of the Rural Opportunity Zones, click here

Transcript:

Nikki: Chris Harris, program manager of the rural opportunity zones, explains the program and how it began. Harris, a 2008 graduate of the University of Kansas, helped to establish the program and now directs it.

 Nikki: When did the program begin, and have the number of people interested meet your expectations?

 Chris Harris: We launched the application on July 1. It passed legislation last April or early May. I developed it with my team and we put the application on our website on July 1, and we’ve had 265 applications so far. So, about one a day.

Nikki: What information do people interested in the program need to provide?

 Chris Harris: They have to prove three things. They have to show that they live in the county, that it’s their primary residence, that they have a degree from an accredited institution and that they have an outstanding student loan balance.

 Nikki: What are the limitations on the number of participants who can be in the program?

Chris Harris: The counties and the state each pay half of the annual payment, which could be up to $3,000 a person. So, the county would pay $1,500, we pay $1,500. Each county, when they passed a resolution to participate, that’s why they had to pass a resolution, because it comes out of their budget. We had them set an initial budget. What would you be willing to put toward it? And some counties have been very aggressive and some counties had a wait-and-see kind of attitude, and they put in smaller budgets. So, if you totaled the entire accumulative county budget, I thinks somewhere around 400 people that could come in. The state can accommodate more with our budget for the program, and the counties have the option to raise their budget. And they’re going into budgeting process right now, and we expect that they’ll significantly increase that.

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Kansas Livestock Association reassures Kansans after USDA finds mad cow

April 25
  • The Kansas Livestock Association says beef is safe, and there is no need for concern over the USDA’s findings of mad cow disease in California. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that the disease was found in a dead dairy cow Tuesday, and is the first case of mad cow since 2006. Cattlenetwork.com reports that the KLA emphasized the system worked in preventing the cow from entering the food chain.
  • The Kansas House tax bill, which is now in conference committee, contains a proposal to establish 24 more counties as Rural Opportunity Zones. College graduates who move to a ROZ county can receive help with their student loan payments. There are currently 50 ROZ counties in Kansas, which were chosen based on their decrease in population. To learn more about the program, click here.
  • The Kansas Legislature reconvened today after a three-week spring recess. Legislators will be discussing state budget and redistricting. The Lawrence Journal World reports that house and senate members will also resume talks on reducing the income tax for individuals and eliminating it for businesses.
  • CNN reports that Newt Gingrich will end his bid for the presidential nomination with a final campaign Tuesday in Washington DC, where he will make his announcement to support Mitt Romney. CNN reports that Gingrich plans to focus on helping the GOP take control of Congress.