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Better Together: Kansas Workshop Connects Agencies to Rural Communities  Second Rural Prosperity Event to Be Held in McPherson This Month

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Above image credit: (L-R) Trisha Purdon, Director of the Kansas Office of Rural Prosperity (ORP); HUD analysts Treka Henry, David Clayton, and Megan Wheeler; RA Clayborn; Kerri Falletti, KS ORP Grassroots Strategy Developer; Nancy Rios, HRSA Regional Administrator; Myesha Kennedy, HRSA Public Health Analyst and KC FOD Jose Davis. (Contributed)
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6 minute read

Last year, the state of Kansas allocated millions of dollars to help rural communities through housing, health care, broadband and rural development grants and tax credits.  

Separately, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law also offered billions of dollars from the federal government to fund rural-specific projects.  

Despite ample funding for rural communities, many folks who could use the money most still find it difficult to apply. 

In response, local agencies teamed up to create the Kansas Rural Health and Prosperity Grants workshop. A two-day event last year filled a Dodge City, Kansas, venue with attendees seeking one-on-one help with grant applications and advice on how to bundle federal and state programs.  

“It’s kind of how rural works best,” said Trisha Purdon, director of the Kansas Office of Rural Prosperity. “Someone that you can talk to face-to-face, in person is very much the rural communication method. So, it really broke down those barriers.”  

The office, in coordination with a laundry list of state and federal agencies, will host the workshop again April 16-17, in McPherson, Kansas. Among others, the event will include representatives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Rural Development U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Kansas Housing Resources Corporation (KHRC).  

“We’ve leveraged all of these opportunities and have slowed down the rural drain where people leave and never come back.”

Leslie Schrag
Kingman, Kansas Economic Development

Why Rural?

The Office of Rural Development was established in 2019 by Gov. Laura Kelly and soon embarked on a series of rural listening tours across the state.  

From the listening tours, it identified housing, childcare, health care, broadband infrastructure, workforce, depopulation issues, and community and economic development as the seven key problems plaguing rural prosperity.  

“The thought is that the Office of Rural Prosperity is meant to be an advocate for rural communities,” Purdon said.  

In 2021, KHRC published the Kansas Housing Needs Assessment, which showed that rural populations in the state are declining and getting older. These statistics, combined with shuttered hospitals, grocery stores and other amenities, lead many to worry about the prosperity of rural communities.   


Housing Needs


Through extensive outreach, the Office of Rural Prosperity has developed a trusted network with communities across the state, which is why federal agencies, like HUD and HRSA, were interested in partnering with Purdon for outreach efforts.  

“We started talking about how it seems silly for us to be hosting our own grassroots grant opportunity conferences,” Purdon explained. “When we all work together, (the Office of Rural Prosperity) could bring the people because we have that connection, but (the other agencies) could bring the resources when it comes to all of the different grant opportunities.” 

A subsequent listening tour, Power UP and Go, strove to answer why rural Kansas age 21-39 choose to stay in or leave their rural communities. 

The study found that young populations want to see civic leaders and entrepreneurs supported to create a community that everyone is proud to call home.  

Few rural cities and towns have on-staff grant writers. Typically, there are one or two people who look for and apply to these funding programs while also managing other departments and projects.  

In Kingman, Kansas, that person is Leslie Schrag, the economic development director.  

Located about 45 minutes west of Wichita, Kingman has a little over 3,000 people. Until recently, it had a declining Main Street with several empty lots and fire-damaged buildings.  

In the last couple of years, the city has made use of housing grants, funding for facade beautification and sidewalk improvement programs to transform its downtown.  

“Our main street is really coming along,” Schrag said.  

It now has several boutiques, a coffee shop and commercial spaces with upper-level housing units.  

“We’ve leveraged all of these opportunities and have slowed down the rural drain where people leave and never come back,” Schrag said.  

Schrag attended the Rural Health and Prosperity workshop last year in Dodge City to make connections with folks at the state and federal agencies and with some of the foundations and other organizations in attendance.  

“It’s just a tremendous opportunity to learn about rural grants and opportunities,” Schrag said.  

Her favorite parts from last year — and why she plans to attend again in a couple of weeks — were the grant writing tips workshop and the opportunities to share what Kingman has done and learn from others communities there.  

“It’s definitely beneficial to any rural community,” Schrag said. “No matter what type of project they have going on … it’s going to get covered in one way or another at this event.”  

 
The Rural Health and Prosperity Grants workshop last year in Dodge City, Kansas, was widely attended. (From left to right: Trisha Purdon, Director of the Kansas Office of Rural Prosperity (ORP); HUD analysts Treka Henry, David Clayton, and Megan Wheeler; RA Clayborn; Kerri Falletti, KS ORP Grassroots Strategy Developer; Nancy Rios, HRSA Regional Administrator; Myesha Kennedy, HRSA Public Health Analyst and KC FOD Jose Davis). (Contributed).

Interconnected 

Part of the workshop’s strength was realizing the reciprocity of rural development. 

“If you can address health and economic development, you can address housing and vice versa,” said Ryan Vincent, the executive director at KHRC. “It takes all of us working together.”   

Vincent said over the last couple of years his team at the housing corporation and folks at agencies across the state have realized they can be more effective if they work together.  

“This is just one piece of many initiatives that we have going on,” he said. 

The upcoming event will include representatives from local foundations who want to connect with potential rural grantees to help their development projects.  

Part of the workshop empowering folks to apply. Vincent said it can be intimidating to apply for a big grant, especially for a community member who has never written a grant proposal and feels they don’t have the necessary skills.  

“But what they have is a love for their community,” Vincent said.  

Last year, folks from Caney, Kansas, and Emporia, Kansas, attended the workshop and learned about the Hope VI Main Street grants from HUD. They applied for the funding to rejuvenate their downtown districts and the two Kansas cities won a combined $1 million in funding.  

It’s a win for those communities, but a win for Kansas as well. Only three projects across the nation were awarded this funding, two of them in the Sunflower State.

“If rural development was easy, we would have succeeded by now. There’s a lot of work that needs to happen, and unless we work together, it’s not going to happen.”   

Christy Davis,
Kansas Rural Development U.S. Department of Agriculture

“The common denominator is getting citizens in their rural towns empowered to take an active role in helping their community thrive,” Purdon said. 

Many federal programs require a match from applicants, which can make it difficult and intimidating for small communities to apply. At the workshop, however, the state agencies and foundations explain to attendees how they can leverage a local grant to put up their matching funds for a larger federal program.  

It’s a huge help for many of these projects.  

“You don’t have to have, you know, $100,000 sitting in your small town bank account to go after these funds,” Purdon said. “Let’s help you build something and build wealth in your community by getting your leg up and getting (you) off to a strong start.” 

Kansas seems to be unique in offering this type of workshop. Purdon said in all her meetings with offices from other states, she has yet to hear of a similar program.  

Christy Davis, the director at Kansas Rural Development USDA office, said she is proud of the emphasis Kansas has put on supporting its rural communities.  

It’s not only a help to the existing populations in rural communities, but Davis said it allows more folks to live in these towns and reap the benefits of rural living. 

“There’s so many great things about being in a small town — in a community where there is community,” Davis said. 

“If rural development was easy, we would have succeeded by now,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to happen, and unless we work together, it’s not going to happen.”   

The upcoming Rural Health and Prosperity Grants workshop is an opportunity to do just that.  

Folks interested in attending the free workshop can register at the Kansas Office of Rural Prosperity website.  

Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. 

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