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Rural Champions

A network of devoted rural champions working to strengthen Kansas communities

The Rural by Choice Champions program is designed to create a network of grassroots individuals who possess the necessary tools to resolve critical community needs in a quick and effective manner. These Rural Champions will receive strategic training, compensation, and paired mentorships to assist them.

Developed by the Kansas Department of Commerce’s Office of Rural Prosperity (ORP), in partnership with the Kansas Sampler Foundation (KSF) and the Patterson Family Foundation, this program will address critical public needs in rural communities and build capacity moving forward.

Moving the needle towards rural prosperity.

The need for the Rural Champions program was identified in the Power Up & Go report through surveys and interviews of more than 400 rural Kansans under the age of 40 as something that would “move the needle” toward success for rural prosperity. Many of those individuals wanting to make a difference are volunteers who are passionate about their communities but unable to take on a community improvement project without receiving appropriate resources, training and/or compensation.

The Rural Champions program removes the funding gap for those passionate rural dwellers by pairing them with a resource team that will help them accomplish their critical community project.

In many cases for rural communities, lack of capacity in human capital prohibits critical needs from being addressed. The Rural Champions program provides the support needed to fill the gap in driving successes throughout Kansas when there is a lack of capital or the capacity of a dedicated individual to see a project through to completion. The Rural Champions program will create a network of grassroots champions tackling critical needs that have been identified by the communities themselves.

The Rural Champion is someone identified and sponsored by a host organization in their community to take on a project that will have lasting impact. These twelve individuals are taking on various projects that have been evidenced by need across the state. The processes that the Rural Champions utilize will be captured – creating community roadmaps for change that other rural communities can then follow to do similar work. The goal of this initiative is to be able to repeat similar efforts in future years so that multiple communities across rural Kansas can produce community-focused and community-driven change.

In addition, Champions will utilize the #ruralbychoice social media campaign to highlight the benefits of living in rural Kansas. In an effort to rewrite the rural life narrative and promote the benefits of doing so, a social media plan will be developed for Champions to create content for various ORP platforms.

Below is information for the projects that have been selected for this pilot project.

Clay County Champion – Alicia Paul

Childcare Champion Project Description

A Rural Champion will help solve our community childcare shortage. Multiple closures have affected over 50 families. Two new in-home providers open, but they are unable to run at total capacity for various reasons and were started because they could not find childcare for their children. The closings have adversely impacted many employers, including the hospital, school, a large manufacturing firm, and many small businesses. One of the biggest challenges is finding and retaining childcare staff. When it comes to economic prosperity, we should view childcare as part of a community’s infrastructure, like water, sewer, and good streets; childcare is necessary for the workforce and businesses alike and affects the efficiencies and profit margins of companies. The mission of Grow Clay County is to provide creative strategies through leadership and resources to sustain and grow our region’s vibrant economy and outstanding quality of life. By taking the lead and looking for innovative solutions, a Rural Champion will move us closer to solving the childcare crisis. Multiple meetings have taken place with current providers to address their needs and prevent further closures through funding, training, and support, but our community still faces a significant childcare shortage. The Rural Champion will work with a task force that includes collaboration between organizations and businesses to solve a community problem, as well as research business models for a center, grants to build or remodel a center, and the requirements to create a substitute pool.

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Decatur County Champion – Rebecca Nedland

USD 294 Community Childcare Project

After a Strategic Doings presentation in February 2022, a group of community members came together to create a coalition to address the childcare needs in our county. Using data from Child Care Aware of Kansas and a community survey, we concluded that a community childcare facility is seriously needed. Working with community leaders, we strategized what our next step should be. Our research led us to conclude that the USD 294 would be the best “parent” organization for our project. The mission statement of USD 294 is “Our mission. Their journey! Where kids come first!” USD 294 strives to guide their students on their educational journey from Pre-K through High School. With USD 294 sponsoring this childcare project, our children start that journey earlier. The USD 294 Childcare project curriculum can be aligned with the Pre-K program to help young children prepare for success from the moment they are born to the day they enter school. This project would increase the number of childcare slots available in our county. According to data from Child Care Aware there are potentially 119 children in need of childcare in our county. The current number of childcare slots available is 43, leaving many families with limited opportunities for quality childcare options. In addition, two of the five current providers are near retirement age. Their retirement will leave the County with an even larger deficit of slots for our children. The Champion will help USD 294 Community Childcare Project progress more efficiently with the additional resources and connections that made available.

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Ford County Champion – Jean Dizmang

Dodge City Childcare Facilities

The Dodge City/Ford County Development Corporation is a non-profit organization that promotes the growth and development of existing businesses and pursues quality new businesses to help sustain the economic vitality of the area. The childcare industry is an important economic driver within states. Parents need childcare to obtain and retain jobs. Access to high-quality affordable childcare allows parents to enter the workforce. Problems with childcare also affect parents’ long-term career prospects and advancement. A quarter of parents have reduced their work hours, turned down other job offers, or been prevented from pursuing further education and training. Other effects include parents rejecting promotions, reducing hours from full-time to part-time work, or quitting a job due to insufficient childcare. For Dodge City to continue to grow, our community must work together to increase affordable quality childcare facilities. In 2020, a childcare committee was formed, consisting of local and regional organizations to try to identify opportunities to tackle the childcare shortage. Local businesses and regional partners were engaged to explore a variety of opportunities. Based on this research it was determined that to meet our large shortage, the committee would need to focus on creating two new facilities: One operated by USD 443, located in south Dodge, serving 320 children during first shift and an additional 320 children during second shift. And another facility, operated by Dodge City Community College, located in north Dodge, serving 212 students during first shift and an additional 212 students during second shift. In addition, we are exploring possible grant opportunities, private partnerships, and fundraising opportunities to fund the construction of the facilities. The Rural Champion will provide the support needed to fill the gap in capacity and be dedicated to see the project through to completion.

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Geary County Champion – Autumn McGuffey

Main Street Market

The project team is preparing to establish Main Street Market for 2023. There will be two markets within one, a farmers market and a makers market, both of which will be located in the historic district of downtown Junction City.  In addition to the farmers market and makers market, there will be music, entertainment, educational events, themes, and a variety of activities throughout the season. Junction City Main Street, located in a heavily rural area, has identified an estimated 160-200 home-based businesses operated by the spouses of active-duty soldier. During January 2022, a focus group interview was conducted with military spouses that operate home-based business operations, and it was suggested that a program designed to assist the informal economy of home-based businesses targeting both military spouses and surrounding rural areas would have a significant impact. By having an organized, structured, well promoted, and consistent Main Street Market at a prominent location in a busy area, as is being planned with Main Street Market, it is expected that the vendors will have the turnout needed for economic success. Serving as the Market Manager, the Rural Champion will be able to fully dedicate her time to Main Street Market and move the market from just another event to a destination downtown event for which people would travel miles to set up as a vendor or attend as a customer. 

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Graham County Champion – Dan Steffen

Community Development & Entrepreneurship

The need for the re-establishment of the Graham County Community Development Program has been discussed for several years. Now, is the time to do so, as the County is in dire need of a “Point of Contact” for community development efforts. This project will focus on “Entrepreneurship” development for the County, focusing on Business Retention/Expansion and creating an entrepreneurial environment for both existing business expansion and new business startups. The scope of work to be completed in year 1 includes 11 goals. The impact of the re-establishment of a Graham County Community Development organization will greatly benefit the business community of the entire County, the overall population, as well as support and assist with entrepreneurial development in the County. In establishing this, a Champion to serve as single “point of contact” for the business community and citizens of the County in general is needed. This will improve communication with the citizens and business community of the County, as to opportunities and programs that may benefit them. The organization will also be a “One Stop” shop for entrepreneurs seeking to start a business and for existing businesses looking to expand and/or diversify. Assistance to the business community in the area of Workforce Development will also be a benefit to the business community. 

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Harper County Champion – Cheryl Adelhardt

HPCO Growth Initiative – Housing Playbook

For two years now, the cities of Anthony, Attica and Harper, Harper County and local businesses have joined forces to work on multiple project efforts to sustain the rural Kansas economy in Harper County. The realization that most of our economic efforts were met with a massive roadblock in the lack of available housing was quickly realized and multi-jurisdictional efforts began working together to try to solve the problem. Tackling the multifaceted needs of our housing inventory (vacant properties, dilapidation, affordable housing, rental vs. owner-occupied, lack of middle-income housing, etc.) has proven difficult due to the staff time necessary to accomplish the following objectives: 1) identifying the volume of need in each category; 2) researching the many options and programs that are available to help address them: RHID, MIH, Landbanks, CDBG, and so much more, 3) matching the appropriate resource to its corresponding need category, 4) developing a calculated and well thought out strategic approach to resolving our housing crisis. The creation of this playbook for Harper County would be a game changer for us but we have had a very difficult time keeping the project moving due to lack of available staffing. We have formed partnerships with businesses and all the governmental jurisdictions in Harper County and ALL agree and are on board that this housing crisis is an issue we can all rally behind. The dedicated Rural Champion will help with this massive undertaking of this united effort to really move the needle forward.

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Kingman County Champion – Johnna Fairchild

Kingman County Childcare Champion

Based on meetings with local governments, childcare providers, school districts, employers, and parents/guardians, the Kingman County Economic Development Advisory Committee (KCEDAC) established childcare as its top priority, after housing, at their February 2022 meeting. The childcare champion will be tasked with creating and implementing a county-wide strategic plan. The essential duties of the champion will include conducting research, analyzing data, meeting with stakeholders, writing grants, securing funding, and managing forthcoming projects. The potential impacts of this pilot program include a childcare center in the City of Kingman, full staffing at an existing center in Cunningham, and an increase of in-home providers county-wide. Other positive impacts include an increase in workforce participation, decreased financial burdens on new and current providers, and more economic opportunity for the entire county. The champion will provide the efficiency and expertise to ensure childcare policies, programs, and projects move forward and that tangible milestones are realized.

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Lincoln County Champion – Sara Smith

Community Placemaking and Growth

The Lincoln County Economic Development Foundation (LCEDF) sought a Rural Champion to spearhead several initiatives around the “Communities of the Future” theme highlighted in the 2021 Kansas “Power Up & Go” report written by the Kansas Sampler Foundation. In that report, a Community of the Future is one where new residents are welcomed, existing residents are engaged, the arts are supported and creative local projects reflect the vibe of a community. The Rural Champion will not only build our capacity but also renew our collective energy to launch several key initiatives. Two of those are: 1) Remote Work Relocation Grant Program – The LCEDF has approved the creation of a program similar to Tulsa Remote or Choose Topeka to offer relocation grants to remote workers who move from out-of-state to Lincoln County. The Rural Champion will be the local friendly-face to correspond with potential applicants, provide community information, answer questions, and generally be a ‘concierge’ that helps a mover feel welcome and excited about their move and their future.2) Placemaking and Beautification Projects – The LCEDF has had several projects stuck in preliminary planning stages for several years and the Rural Champion will help push these forward to completion. With the help of several funding sources including a SEED grant from the Kansas Department of Commerce, we will take on downtown beautification projects in every community in the county. By the end of 2023 and early 2024, we want visitors to feel a fresh and unique vibe to Lincoln County.

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Linn County Housing Champion – Darcy Wilson

Linn County Housing

The new Comprehensive Plan was adopted by our Board of County Commissioners on August 29, 2022. While several goals were identified in the Plan, the one that consistently rises to the top is improving housing throughout the county. Linn County, like many small communities across the state, has suffered a lack of quality, affordable housing in recent years. There are seven small cities located in Linn County. Housing stock throughout Linn County is aging. The cities have made concerted efforts recently to condemn and remove blighted homes, but there have been very few homes built to replace the ones that have been torn down. In a county as small as we are, employees wear many hats and often don’t have the time needed to devote themselves to a single, long term project. A Rural Champion in Linn County will serve as a Housing Champion. Being able to hire a Housing Champion, which would not be a possibility without the Rural Champions grant, opens Linn County to a world of resources and progress that we would otherwise not be able to access. Our Housing Champion will work with all seven cities to help develop plans for remodeling or removing blighted homes, use the state housing assessment to apply for funding, and work with developers to bring new housing to our communities.

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Montgomery County Champion – Brittney Holum

Rural Connection

Our project mission is to build a network of impactful and accessible trails in Independence. Whether that is a self-guided historical walking or mural tour, a gravel bike or mountain bike trail, stroll through downtown, or a safe route to school.

We believe walkable communities that focus on utilizing their natural resources to create pleasing outdoor experiences succeed in increasing community pride and quality of life, enterprise, health and wellness, and tourism. In turn, walkability has a multiplier effect that creates a healthy ecosystem for businesses, the community, and visitors.

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Morton County Champion – Mike Horton

Safe & Secure Morton County

The project is to provide a safe, confidential, unmanned place for rural community members to access mental health resources 24/7 with the use of telephones which directly dial hotlines, as well as access to Tele-Health. In a report from KDHE, Morton County is ranked 8th in the State for opioid vulnerability. Morton County is also subject to many suicides, primarily white, middle aged males, by firearm. By providing these “resource locations” we hope to create a place for community members to receive help while keeping confidentiality intact in order to fight the stigma about seeking help in a small town. The locations will have access to a range of resources including Mental Health providers, Physicians, Veteran Support, and Drug abuse support, an AED and other materials such as educational pamphlets with numbers and websites to different resources like food banks, clothing banks, Ministerial Alliance, AA Groups. Our hope is to bridge the gap in wait time for in-person professionals and save lives of those who will not seek help in person at our emergency facilities due to fear of judgement. Our Community coalition is made up of several specialty areas throughout the County and all agree this issue is top priority in Morton County; but are faced with the problem of time and money. Having a Champion enables us to address the concerns of several entities without stretching our volunteers and full-time employees more than they are already.

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Wallace County Champion – Lissa Sexson

Establishing Community Development in Wallace County

The goal for Wallace County’s Rural Champions Grant is to establish and explore community development and the opportunities that can come from that office. For multiple years there has been organized conversation about creating a form of community development, to not only improve our space, but to also start diversifying and growing our economic base.  The Rural Champion will be the point person to work to create a community development office that would continue to exist beyond the twelve months of this project. The Rural Champion will evaluate topics what structure community development should take in Wallace County, and avenues for long-term funding, but also pressing issues such as expanding our agricultural economy, increasing available housing, and a financially distressed senior care center. 

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