By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University.
“Changing the trend lines.” For those of us who study graphs and charts depicting the demographic trends of rural Kansas, the thought of redirecting those trends positively is a remarkable achievement. We’ve seen too many examples of long-term population loss, outmigration, and declining jobs and school enrollments. Today we’ll learn about a community-based initiative which is changing the trend lines in a positive way.
Last week, we learned about Chris Sramek who moved back to his hometown of Atwood in 2001 to create a private meteorology business. He wanted to be close to family and farm, but he saw his community facing many challenges and got involved to make things better.
When the local economic development director retired, the board selected Chris Sramek to replace her. It was a part-time position, so it enabled Chris to continue to build his meteorology business at the same time.
In his new position, Chris got involved with bottom-up economic development efforts such as Ogallala Commons, a multi-state grass-roots initiative for sustainable development, and a Nebraska initiative called HomeTown Competitiveness.
In 2008, Kansas Farm Bureau launched its own initiative based on the Nebraska model. It was called the Kansas HomeTown Prosperity Initiative. This model emphasizes local leadership, strong local development organizations, community philanthropy, and youth engagement, attraction and entrepreneurship.
Atwood/Rawlins County was one of three locations selected for the Kansas HomeTown Prosperity Initiative. This would then become the Kansas Entrepreneurial Communities Initiative, which supports entrepreneurs and trains business coaches in partnership with NetWork Kansas, the Kansas Small Business Development Centers, and others.
So what happened in Atwood? Lots of things, according to a report from Kansas Farm Bureau. A new dental clinic was brought to Atwood after three years of work. A new High Plains Food Co-op was created, through which 40 farmers direct market their products to Denver using online orders and monthly deliveries. Atwood became the state’s first E-Community as designated by NetWork Kansas. Improvements were completed at the high school and the movie theater downtown. An entrepreneurship fair was conducted including a business plan competition for junior high and high school students.
One interesting element of the change in Atwood is the high level of leadership by women.
“Female leadership in this whole process has doubled in the past ten years,” Chris said. The report notes that Atwood is full of strong female leaders such as the former mayor, city council members, economic development director and the chamber of commerce director.
Another change is regional cooperation. Students in the Rawlins County town of McDonald cross the county line to go to school in Cheyenne County, which creates some intense rivalries. “Twenty years ago, that was like the enemy line,” Chris said. “Now we’re doing projects together.” Such cooperation is important for rural communities like McDonald, which has a population of 155 people. Now, that’s rural.
Still, what are the bottom line results? One finding by Kansas Farm Bureau was that personal income by non-farm proprietorships in Rawlins County grew to record high levels. Another finding came from the 2010 Census: For the first time since the 1930s Census, Rawlins County grew in population – a stark contrast to the typical rural pattern of population loss.
What does this mean for the schools, for example? From 2000 to 2007, local school enrollment had plunged by 34 percent. But from 2008 to 2011, enrollments have stabilized or even slightly grown. For the first time in a long time, the lines on the charts are trending upward.
In September 2011, Kansas Farm Bureau held its annual governor’s tour in Rawlins County. In addition to a farm tour, some 60 Rawlins County High School students came to the community meeting with the governor.
“The governor turned to the students and asked, ‘If you had an opportunity, how many of you would want to come back to Atwood?’” Chris said. “In contrast to the old days, almost all the kids raised their hands. That’s when you sit there and think, ‘This is making a difference.’”
We commend Chris Sramek and all those involved with the Kansas HomeTown Prosperity Initiative for helping move those trend lines up.
The mission of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development is to enhance rural development by helping rural people help themselves. The Kansas Profile radio series and columns are produced with assistance from the K-State Research and Extension Department of Communications News Unit. A photo of Ron Wilson is available. Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are also available. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development.