Laura Kelly: A Vision for Rural Prosperity
All Kansans should have access to a high quality of life, regardless of their zip code. Yet for too long, rural Kansas has been left behind – the majority of rural counties losing population nonstop since 1920. Making a bad situation worse, the policies of the Brownback-Colyer Administration have devastated many rural communities. We have seen healthcare facilities close; industries relocate; schools close or go to 4-day weeks; infrastructure projects delayed; and kids leave for metropolitan areas.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can and must do better.
The Kelly Administration will ensure that all Kansans have the opportunity to live, work, and play in thriving communities, whether it’s in Oberlin or Overland Park, Leoti or Lawrence, Garden City or Kansas City.
Rural economic development is about creatively leveraging local resources to create a quality of life in rural Kansas that is second to none.
An interconnected, strategic plan for rural economic development will be a hallmark of the Kelly Administration. This plan includes:
- Developing Rural housing
- Revitalizing Main Street corridors
- Investing in Rural Infrastructure
- Supporting Rural Hospitals and Medical Professional Recruitment
- Making State Government Work for Rural Kansas
- Incentivizing Active Tourism
- Supporting Agribusiness
Access to quality housing is a necessity for all Kansans, but in too many rural communities an aging and deteriorating housing stock is the reality. A lack of quality housing – and the resulting loss of population – creates a ripple effect on schools, businesses, and local governments. The Kelly Administration will focus on improving rural housing:
- Provide tax credits to encourage the development of upper-floor housing in rural downtowns. Main streets aren’t just the emotional hearts of small communities; they’re also part of the solution to rural housing needs. By incentivizing the construction of upper floor apartments on commercial corridors, local investors can breathe new life into historic buildings while bringing vitality back to main street. These new residents living upstairs can, in turn, help support small-scale retail uses in ground floor spaces that too often sit vacant today.
- Work with community foundations. Community foundations are vital to providing local solutions to local problems. They can and should take a leading role in working with state government, industry leaders and others to make targeted housing investments that are tailored to the specific needs of local communities. This could include using impact investing to finance new/rehab housing; supporting local building trades programs in high schools; and making targeted grants to conduct housing needs assessments.
- Encourage colleges to develop housing in downtown areas. Thousands of rural Kansas community college and university students live in student housing on campus. The Kelly Administration will incentivize partnerships between higher ed, local governments and private developers to construct new student housing in downtown corridors, rather than on campus, just as Pittsburg State University and the city of Pittsburg have done with the “Block 22” project.
- Develop new programs for community-based organizations to educate first-time homebuyers on the importance of building equity through homeownership; methods and programs to support saving for down payments; and methods to improve credit scores.
Historic downtowns are the heart and soul of Kansas communities. Yet across our state these once-bustling corridors have suffered from years of disinvestment caused by retirements, population loss, and changes in shopping patterns. More broadly, access to basic services—like being able to go to a grocery store—has been eroded across our state. The Kelly Administration believes that rural downtowns can be brought back to life through a focus on three key strategies:
- Provide incentives for capital investments of at least $20,000 in structures on commercial corridors in communities of 25,000 or less.
- Recruit artists to rural Kansas. The creative sector is a powerful economic driver that has revitalized countless struggling urban neighborhoods, where artists are attracted to large, inexpensive live/work spaces. Rural communities have an abundance of these same spaces, but there’s been no coordinated effort to package and market these opportunities to artists seeking the next place to create. The Kelly Administration will coordinate state resources with local partners and private developers to ensure that artists are connected to places where they can live, work and become part of the community fabric.
- Support Rural Grocery Stores. Access to healthy food at fair prices is essential to quality of life. Yet across Kansas rural grocery stores are closing. The Kelly Administration will work with local economic development officials; community foundations; the Rural Grocery Initiative at Kansas State University; statewide philanthropies; and grocery store operators to ensure that healthy food is within reach of all Kansans.
All Kansans deserve and expect a first-class transportation system—especially those in rural areas – and digital infrastructure. Years of disinvestment by the Brownback-Colyer Administration has done tremendous damage to our state’s roads, with often disastrous effects on rural communities.
Notably, most of rural Kansas is eliminated from competing for new industry because nearly all new manufacturing prospects seeking sites require access to 4-lane highways. Simply put, the deck is unfairly stacked against rural Kansas without major new investments in transportation. Not only that, a lack of good broadband access in rural areas limits the ability to attract or expand businesses and impacts the resources available to our schools.
The Kelly Administration will get rural Kansas moving again by passing a major, 10-year transportation plan that makes broad investments in highways across Kansas, particularly in rural areas. They will also make expanding and improving broadband access in rural areas a priority.
- 10-year transportation plan that expands four lane highways in rural areas. The following are a few examples of important projects that still need to be completed (there are more):
- US 69 from Bourbon County line to Pittsburg
- US 75 from Holton to Sabetha
- US 50/400 from Dodge City to Cimarron
- K68 from Ottawa to Louisburg
- US 169 from Osawatomie to Coffeyville
- US 56 from McPherson to Great Bend
- US 54 from Pratt to Wichita
- Expand and Improve broadband access in rural communities. Working with the newly created Statewide Broadband Task Force to identify and address poor service areas. Improving broadband service will support businesses, enhance resources available to schools, and allow citizens to access telemedicine.
Strengthening Rural Hospitals
Every Kansan deserves access to quality healthcare, regardless of their zip code. Yet rural communities have suffered disproportionately under the Brownback-Colyer Administration’s refusal to expand Medicaid. The result has been hospital closures; nursing home closures; and huge uncompensated care burdens that fall on local taxpayers. The Kelly Administration will focus its rural healthcare efforts on:
- Strengthening Rural Hospitals by first expanding Medicaid, which is essential to the survival of rural hospitals and the communities they serve. It is also vital to expand the Community Service Tax Credits program to ensure that hospitals have the resources they need to purchase high quality medical equipment.
- Supporting Recruitment of Medical Providers. Western Kansas has shown that cooperation between communities in the recruitment of medical providers can improve both recruitment and retention rates. The Kelly Administration will help expand this promising model statewide by working with regions facing waves of retiring providers where one hospital or practice can’t support a new provider alone, but multiple communities that share that provider can.
Building a Mobile State Government
For generations, rural Kansans have been able to access core government services relatively close to home: renewing drivers’ licenses; applying for food benefits; even talking to a local KDOT official about snow removal on the highway. Brownback-Colyer cut Kansans off from THEIR state government by closing KDOT offices, DMV stations, and DCF offices across rural Kansas. These closures not only make life difficult for residents needing to access key government services, but they have devastated rural economies—and families—with unnecessary layoffs of dedicated public servants. The Kelly Administration will reconnect rural communities to their state government by:
- Restoring key government services in rural communities impacted by Brownback-Colyer cuts. Wherever possible the Kelly Administration will restore rural DCF and KDOT services in rural communities. If possible, they will re-open shuttered offices. If it is not possible, the Administration will focus on creating partnerships with local communities so staff from state agencies can hold regular office hours through office sharing or a mobile office approach to government services.
- Establishing the Office of Rural Prosperity (ORP). The severity of the challenges facing rural Kansas, and the magnitude of the opportunity in these communities, demands a major overhaul of the way state government serves rural areas. The ORP would be charged with ensuring that investments by state agencies are aligned with the needs of rural communities; marketing and promoting rural Kansas as a place to live, work and visit; and developing ongoing policy priorities to ensure that rural Kansans are served by their state government.
Rural Kansans are legendary for their work ethic, ingenuity and ability to solve problems, which is why scores of manufacturers still call rural Kansas home. But their continued presence is threatened by a lack of access to young people with the skills needed in today’s economy, and Brownback-Colyer’s dismantling of the Kansas Department of Commerce, which has left the agency and its local economic development partners with almost no tools to recruit or retain manufacturers. The Kelly Administration will put a laser-like focus on growing the manufacturing sector in rural Kansas by:
- 1. Building a highly skilled labor pool.We must invest in career and technical education that leverages creative partnerships between employers, USDs and higher education to grow and retain talented young people interested in manufacturing.
- Facilitating Retention and Recruitment Efforts. Encouraging expansion and capital investment by manufacturers is vitally important, and it requires smart tools if we are to be successful in a highly competitive national and international recruitment environment. The Kelly Administration will focus on renewal and rebuilding of the state’s economic development tools and expertise in order to grow advanced manufacturing in Kansas. These new tools will be available to both existing and new manufacturers and the creation of the tools will be informed by a strong public/private partnership.
Kansas has unrivaled natural beauty. Rural Kansans are in closest contact with this beauty and stand to benefit most from a coordinated effort to market the state to tourists seeking hunting, fishing, cycling, hiking and agri-tourism opportunities – as well as unique shopping, dining and lodging experiences – in our state’s small towns. The Kelly Administration is committed to supporting Active Tourism efforts including:
- Supporting new investments in overnight lodging in designated rural areas including hotels, inns, cabins, Airbnbs, and bed and breakfasts;
- Supporting new investments by businesses providing services to tourists including outfitters; bike rental and repair; wineries and breweries; shuttle services; conference facilities; and farm stands.
- Prioritizing state investments in the Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to enhance community linkages to the state’s natural assets, including lakes and trails.
Agriculture is the lifeblood of our state, and is central to our identity as Kansans. The Kelly Administration will focus intently on ensuring that the state’s immediate and long-term agricultural needs are addressed:
- Water. The 2015 Long Term Vision for the Future of the Water Supply in Kansas laid out a comprehensive and thoughtful approach to managing our state’s most precious and vital natural resource. Unfortunately, most of the Vision’s recommendations have not been implemented. The Kelly Administration will develop a plan to prioritize funding for key elements of the Vision in partnership with local and regional partners. This will include not only a focus on water quantity, but also on ensuring that emerging issues of water quality are being addressed.
- Corporate Farming. Kansas needlessly got a black eye from the Brownback-Colyer fiasco in Tonganoxie, where a lack of transparency and preparation left residents angry, Tyson angry, and our state losing a massive investment. We can do better, by acknowledging that corporate farming is an important part of our agricultural sector and that our state needs reasonable regulations to balance the interests of communities and corporate farms. Corporate interests and local communities need predictability and clarity around whether residents will support both corporate farms and stand-alone processing operations, and whether these communities have the infrastructure and growers required to support these operations. The Kelly Administration will direct state agencies to be meaningful partners in working with local communities seeking corporate farming and/or processing operations to evaluate their readiness—water and wastewater infrastructure, housing, schools—so that communities are prepared to compete successfully for corporate farms, and so corporate interests have predictability and know what they’re getting when they select a community.
- Supporting Local Producers. Farmers growing produce for sale to their communities should have easy access to local markets, as well support in expanding the size and scale of their operations to meet the needs of larger-scale buyers. The Kelly Administration will work to eliminate red tape keeping local producers from selling at farmers’ markets, as well as eliminating barriers to selling to local school districts, nursing homes and supermarkets.