The Garden City Telegram
2/7/2013
OPINIONS AND COMMENTARY

Rural boost

Incentives shows signs of powering rural areas.

When rolled out last year, a new program focused on luring people to rural Kansas showed promise.

Based on early reports, the Kansas Rural Opportunity Zones incentive pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback is indeed showing signs of paying off.

Communities in Kansas have reported new residents taking advantage of the program, which offers incentives to people who move from out of state to Kansas counties that have experienced steep population declines, or are relatively poor.

Statewide, 77 of Kansas' 105 counties lost residents from 2000 to 2010, with 23 losing more than 10 percent of their populations, according to U.S. Census figures. Rural counties in particular know the pain of such erosion.

Not surprisingly, many of the 50 counties targeted for the deal to lure new residents are in western Kansas, which has endured ongoing population losses.

Under the program, new residents don't have to pay state income tax through 2016. They also may participate in a state-matching program to help pay off student loans, which could help bring doctors, dentists and other professionals to underserved areas.

More than 600 people reportedly have applied to have up to $15,000 of their student loans repaid. Of that figure, roughly half have been approved, with many more pending. Applications reportedly have come from 38 states.

The plan isn't a cure-all, of course. Communities involved must deliver jobs and other amenities to attract and keep residents. Multiple strategies are needed to help rural areas rebound during challenging economic times.

Still, consider the Rural Opportunity Zones plan a proactive way to help communities that otherwise might have to concede to population losses with such drastic measures as closing schools and pursuing other consolidation.

The program was pitched as an opportunity to fuel economic growth while investing in the future of counties trying to survive.

While there's plenty to dislike about the governor's overall plan to spur economic growth — one featuring massive tax cuts that will slash the state's income — consider the Rural Opportunity Zones program a welcome strategy at a time Kansas should do more to support and preserve its rural way of life.