Rural Opportunity Zones inject hope into declining towns
By AMY BICKEL
By AMY BICKEL
Special to The Telegram
When Benjamin Anderson came to Ashland four years ago, he was charged with either finding a way to reinvigorate the town's rural hospital or shutting it down.
Ashland, with 839 inhabitants, is the county seat of Clark County, a ranching community situated along the Kansas border that has declined in population for decades.
Clark County, in fact, hasn't grown since 1920, the same year it peaked in population. It since has dropped by more than 55 percent to roughly 2,100 people.
The downward slope was diminishing the health of Ashland's 24-bed hospital. And when Anderson came for an interview, the board chairman didn't sugar-coat the situation.
"The facilities are 55 years old, our finances are challenged and we have contract nursing throughout the facility," Anderson recalled the chairman telling him in the interview. "We'd had no administrator for six months and no doctor for eight months. If things don't turn around, we are going to lose this facility. And if we lose this facility, we aren't going to be able to support this school. And if we lose the hospital and school, we'll lose this town."
The challenge was steep, and Anderson admitted he had never lived in a town with fewer than a quarter million people. Nevertheless, the now 33-year-old felt a calling to come to Ashland from Dallas with his wife, a native of Sabetha, to become a hospital administrator.
Four years later, the hospital that was struggling to recruit is now seeing a transformation. Two new doctors have joined the staff in the past year and Anderson continues to work to find nurses.
Anderson had to find a way to do recruit differently, and he did. He knew those who wanted to work in rural America would be missionary-minded, so he changed the hospital's benefits by giving them eight weeks of vacation. He also used another tool in the toolbox that came at the most opportune time for the young administrator - he began promoting a new state program aimed at revitalizing rural Kansas.
The Kansas Rural Opportunity Zone incentive, Anderson said, is working in Clark County. He knows of at least a dozen new people who have moved to the area since its inception.
Last year, he even phoned the governor's office to tell him so.
"Don't quit this one,'" he relayed to staff. "It's working."
The Great Plains, including Kansas, has more than doubled in population since 1950, according to the census. However, outside the metro areas in rural counties, population is waning.
In fact, some counties have only lost population since the Great Depression.
Census numbers released in March 2011 showed just 28 Kansas counties growing - largely in population centers like Sedgwick, Johnson and Shawnee. Another 77 counties lost population.
The culprit for many is larger farms, with fewer farmers making a living from the land. Meanwhile, the population is aging as the youth who graduate high school go to college - many never to return.
The situation goes beyond population numbers. It includes keeping a school, a vibrant main street and, for counties like Clark, a hospital.
Two years ago, Gov. Sam Brownback unveiled a plan to help struggling counties grappling with the trend.
The plan is simple: motivate residents to move to rural Kansas with money.
The program pays back a portion of student loans and gives income tax breaks to those who move to a declining county.
Now, what is happening is exactly what Brownback said he envisioned.
Since the legislation took effect in July 2011, 628 people have applied to get up to $15,000 of their student loans repaid. Of that figure, 322 people have been approved for the program, with 151 more applications pending.
Of the group, 228 people are from out of state, with the department receiving applications from 38 states.
"It's going right at what we need to take place," Brownback said in an interview last week. "Young, talented people are moving to rural Kansas. I'm just really pleased it's working."
He called the current trend a "rural renaissance" as, it seems, activity develops across the rural regions, noting, in particular, the oil boom in southern Kansas, wind development and animal agriculture expansion.
So far, six people that moved to Clark County have applied for the program. In Pawnee County, 15 applicants are asking for some student loan forgiveness.
Pawnee County has declined by 4,000 people since 1950, according to census figures. However, said Larned Area Chamber of Commerce Chief Courtland Holman, he's now getting "four or five emails a day" from people interested in Pawnee County and the ROZ program.
"People want to come here for medical positions and the state facilities and the hospital are hiring," Holman said.
One man with local connections opened an insurance business. He even hired one employee, Holman said.
Some have bought houses. Others have children who are adding numbers to the school district.
He is already seeing a slight uptick in population. The 2010 census calculated the county population at 6,973. Last year, residents grew to an estimated 7,011.
The hope, said Dan Lara, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Commerce, is that some might fall in love and stay in a small town like Larned.
"If we can get a lot of them to stay, they will set down roots, start families and become permanent residents of the county," Lara said. "That is the whole point of the program, to bring more people into these rural areas."
While ROZ seems like a perfect solution, Holman said one big issue is the county's purse isn't big enough to fund the large number of applicants wanting to apply for the program.
With the student loan program, counties are required to match half of the $3,000 a year for each applicant, up to $15,000. But Pawnee and other rural counties with a tight economic base don't have unlimited funds to earmark to ROZ.
Limited county money, however, isn't stopping Holman and other rural promoters. Holman said Pawnee County officials established an account through the Golden Belt Community Foundation in the past month to help fund the program through private donations.
Pratt County Economic Development Director Jan Scarbrough is dealing with the same concerns.
According to the commerce department, Pratt County has had 31 apply for the student loan forgiveness program. However, Scarbrough said, the county only committed to fund one person a year. The hospital committed to funding one additional person - a doctor.
County officials are looking for ways to resolve the issue as well, including something similar to Pawnee County's solution.
Brownback, however, calls having too many applicants a good problem. He said he hopes counties will make a budgetary choice to bring in youth if they can.
He named a few scenarios in which Kansans returning to their hometown created jobs.
In Atwood, two youthful brothers came home and eventually started a precision agriculture company. In 2007, it employed three. Today, SureFire Ag Systems employs 20.
Meanwhile, Brownback said, entrepreneurs don't necessarily need to locate in a big city to do business. He said he recently toured Dessin Fournir, an upscale home decor company based in Plainville that was started by native Kansans. The company has offices in Los Angeles and New York.
"It's a glorious thing - you can do business from anywhere," he said.
A local match is important, he said. It gives a county investment in the program and its youth.
"Now is the time we should hit the accelerator — counties to really stretch themselves for something like this ... the opportunity to get young talent when we have had an opposite flow for so many years," he said.
Scarbrough said she had a few new residents tell her ROZ was their deciding factor on whether or not they moved to Pratt County.
"They were looking at several jobs and the ROZ opportunity pushed them to this one."
While Holman calls the program a success, added families moving to town has also caused officials to deal with other issues, like the county's housing shortage — something other ROZ counties are struggling with as well. Holman said they recently acquired grant funding to help solve the problem, with 20 new homes on 39 acres expected by the end of 2013.
"It's doing what it is supposed to do - bringing people to a rural community that has lost population in a 10-year time span," Holman said.
If there is any doubt Brownback's plan is working, hospital administrator Ben Anderson will tell any naysayer to look at Clark County.
The hospital he took over four years ago needed staffing. There were no doctors and physician's assistant Jon Bigler, for 18 months, ran ragged managing everything from the clinic to the emergency room.
Bigler said the closest doctor to provide him help and advice was at least 30 miles away.
ROZ was one tool Anderson used to attract professionals like former Army doctor Dan Shuman.
Shuman, who volunteers his time working in Central and South America, was looking for a job in the United States where he could be of service. He was attracted to the rural Kansas hospital and Anderson's incentive package, which included the additional vacation days for his mission work. Shuman also liked the ROZ funding that could help diminish his hefty student loans, as well as the five-year income tax break.
He and his wife, Meredith, uprooted their five children and left the big city for rural Kansas.
"We felt this is where we needed to be — a place we could be and serve a need," he said. "It fit with our paradigm of doing mission work."
It was an adjustment, he admits. Walmart is nearly an hour's drive away. The town doesn't have a dentist.
Yet, he said, he knows he is making a difference, and he is seeing changes in the community from when he started in spring 2012.
Shuman said a chiropractor recently moved to town and there is a fitness center on Main Street. Moreover, the hospital is no longer in survival mode.
However, he added, "it's been a growing process, and we had to learn from the community, too."
Anderson says while there is always some resistance in a community to new ideas, he sees leaders emerging - a community coming together that wants change.
On this day, as he wandered through the halls of the facility, he put it in the terms he knows best.
A community has a choice — either surgery or hospice.
"Surgery is painful and risky, but you will heal and there is life afterward," he said. "Hospice is to let it go and see what happens."
Ashland's hospital is a very different situation today, with the help of a little surgery. Today, the clinic is seeing 30 percent more patients.
"This is working; this is government involvement that makes since," Anderson said of ROZ, adding a request to Brownback.
"Keep it up."