Kansas and Colorado share a great deal more than just a border, a fact which may surprise some people given the differences that seem so apparent at first glance. In Kansas, everything is irrigated. Colorado? Mmmm…not so much. In Colorado, the land still has a slightly rebellious, slightly untamed feeling to it. In Kansas, even driveways are manicured. However, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. That’s especially so in this case when the similarities between Kiowa County in Colorado and, just across the state line, Greeley County in Kansas are somewhat remarkable.
A few examples make the point: population numbers between Greeley and Kiowa are within 100 people of each other. Median income is generally the same, as is age breakdown and distribution of county residents. Numbers of households and numbers of businesses are similar as is the average number of people in a family. And in Kiowa, as in Greeley, agriculture is predominant. (That one comes as no surprise).
Despite these unexpected similarities, there are two distinct differences between “here” and “there”, and they’re the type of differences that can, well, make all the difference in the world.
While both are on the decline, population numbers have decreased significantly more in Greeley County than they have in Kiowa County in the years since 2010. Difference number two? Greeley County elected officials, along with the government of the state of Kansas, are working very hard to do something about it.
In 2011, the governor of Kansas, along with the legislature and no small amount of prodding from leaders in the business community, noticed a very disturbing trend. Population numbers in Kansas were shrinking. It wasn’t that people were leaving one part of Kansas for another; people were leaving Kansas for other states, and the impact was glaring. Kansas, which had been the 25th most populated state in the country for years, was suddenly in 33rd place. And nobody liked that number. Not one bit.
So, the government did what all governments tend to do when confronted with a problem: they conducted a study…the results of which were already well known by county governments throughout the state, had the state just bothered to ask. .
As they learned, there’s been an on-going nationwide migration comprised of people leaving rural areas for urban centers and all that urban centers can offer. It was happening in states all over the country. But the scenario looked very different in Kansas, largely because Kansas is one of those states that’s “a little bit city and a whole lot of country”. And, in Kansas, a whole lot of that “whole lot of country” was on the move.
The response, a highly uncharacteristic move of a staunchly conservative governor like Sam Brownback, was the birth of a governmental incentive program called Rural Opportunity Zones (called ROZ, for short). This program was designed to help those rural counties where population decline threatened just about everything. It was also a program that spoke to people in a language that just about everyone understands.
So, what will it take to get people to move to Kansas? How about…say…being exempt from state taxes for the first five years of residency (provided those people haven’t lived in Kansas for at least five years and are moving in from another state). People liked that idea a lot. But the next incentive really got their attention.
Cities often draw a demographic that is universally appealing—that is, typically young and ambitious professionals. However, that demographic also has one liability that can stand in the way of their advancement, and that is the debt of student loans obtained in the process of getting a degree. So… in a decision to create an incentive most likely to grab the attention of that sought after demographic, a program was created that went straight to the core of what was needed, and it was summed up with another catchy acronym. SLR—it almost rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? What it stands for is even better. SLR is short for Student Loan Repayment. Yup, people with either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s are welcome to apply for the SLR program. If they’re accepted, and agree to live in a rural opportunity zone for five years, the government, in return, agrees to pay off $15,000 worth of student debt at a rate of $3,000 per year for five years.
Okay, so that all sounds good on paper, but what happens when the rubber meets the road, as they say?
AS it turns out, this is one of those cases where it doesn’t just sound like it would work; it actually works, as one single number shows.
The program didn’t really get running full throttle until fiscal year 2014, but that year and every year since has brought results that have everyone--from Brownback to legislators to business leaders to county official—smiling. Those results show that the Rural Opportunity Zone is delivering a 40% Return On Investment. In other words, when calculating the amount of money spent on the program by the state (in the form of taxes not collected), plus the state-county partnership (in the form of $1500 spent by each government per participant per year), the revenue returned to the government in the form of spending in local communities, increase in property tax revenue on houses either bought or built plus children put in school systems and other factors is 40% more than the cost of the program itself.
And how does that translate for Kiowa’s “twin” in Greeley County? It translates well. Very well. Not only have Greeley County officials stopped their nearly out-of-control decrease in population, they’ve turned it around with 20 new residents (not counting those residents’ spouses and children) living in the county, most of whom are degreed, working in professional positions in either education, health care or agricultural and 87% of whom have every intention of staying, even after the program is over. And the story ain’t over yet. Greeley County has 3.24 ROZ applicants for every 100 residents.
And that’s the difference—and a mighty big difference it is—between “here” and “there”. Maybe we should take a tip from our neighbors to the east.