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Kansas Center for Rural Initiatives brings together a variety of expertise, resources to help rural Kansas communities

By Michelle Hall

 

Kansas State University has a reputation for friendliness, cooperation and commitment. And in few places can this be seen more than through a center at K-State that reaches out to bring the resources and expertise of K-Staters to rural communities around the state.

The Kansas Center for Rural Initiatives came together during the farm crisis of the 1980s, according to director Carol Gould. During that time, a group of faculty members began to meet over lunch to discuss how K-State could help the state during that tough time by pooling the resources and expertise available at the university. Soon, President Jon Wefald appointed a task force to look into the issue. They recommended establishing a center in 1986; the Board of Regents approved the formal organization in 1987.

Gould joined the center in 1988, and has seen it grow and change to become what it is today: the coordinating body for all rural programs at K-State; the portal to which towns and people in rural Kansas can find out about programs, resources and expertise available from K-State and beyond.

"Our role is to help communities access the resources available at K-State," Gould said. She said the focus on working with rural communities is important because they have fewer resources than larger towns. Of the 627 incorporated towns and cities in Kansas, only about 30 have more than 10,000 residents.

Reaching out

The Kansas Center for Rural Initiatives finds faculty members from all departments around campus to provide assistance to rural towns in Kansas -- Gould said helping rural communities is "everyone's job." Services include workshops and training, technical assistance, information collection, program evaluation and applied research. Technical assistance ranges from downtown rehabilitation consultation to creating Web sites for towns and small businesses to strategic planning. Previously, faculty members were sent out to each community they helped. Although this still happens quite often, now much of the consulting is done on the Web and through e-mail.

"The Web is such a vast resource," Gould said. "Although we still need the faculty."

Keeping in touch with all these faculty members and knowing where expertise and resources lie, and what communities need from K-State is a daunting task for Gould and her staff of two. That's why she has two advisory groups to aid her in keeping in touch with Kansas communities and with the K-State community. A 12-person advisory committee includes faculty from all over campus and is Gould's "eyes and ears," she said. The community advisory committee is composed of people from around the state and helps Gould know what issues are important to the state and what is working and what isn't.

"They're my sounding board and my reality check," she said.

And it's not just faculty members who help out rural Kansas communities. Many K-State students also are part of these projects, aiding with Web site development, marketing efforts, and much more. For example, recently, a group of students built Web sites for the town of Phillipsburg and provided training to make sure the workers were able to maintain the sites.

"This was a really neat story," Gould said. "The town has really taken ownership of these sites."

Coming full circle

Gould said they've noticed lately that their efforts to aid rural Kansas communities have come full circle.

"We're seeing the same issues re-emerging," she said. "It could be discouraging, but it just goes to show that these things never go away and need constant attention." Typical issues communities are dealing with include the out-migration of youth, problems with the self-image of Kansans, diversifying the job base, and maintaining ownership and presence of small farms.

"If small farms don't exist, small communities don't exist," she said.

Gould said a big issue they've been working on is entrepreneurship, or finding business training and capital for people in small towns with a "big" idea.

"We may not recruit big businesses, but we can help those small ones. There are people who have a business idea that would save one job or create one or two. This kind of assistance is critical," she said. "That's an issue that's been ignored in the past."

Although the same type of issues seems to be creeping up in Kansas, Gould said they have seen positive effects of their work since the implementation of the center.

"The skill of people in rural communities has grown," she said. "Kansas has a better group of community development and economic development workers." Gould said these skills can be attributed in part to the center's focused leadership training and the strategic economic development plans they helped develop in the '90s.

"Leadership is still the No. 1 issue for small towns," she said.

Looking to the future

Although funding isn't what it used to be, Gould said they hope to take the research arm of the center in a new direction in the future. They have plans to begin an online rural development journal to focus on research useful to Kansans.

"This would make research accessible to communities," Gould said. "There's a lot of research that goes on that we don't even know about." She said they hope to publish original research in the journal and make other useful research available as well.

Communities in need typically come to the center, Gould said, although she works hard to be out and about and available through conferences, workshops and public speaking engagements. Communities pay "as much as they can" for K-State's services through the center, Gould said.

"We feel they need to take some ownership," she said. "Sometimes things that are free are viewed as not important. We feel for a low cost we can provide a high return." Payment often consists of work/study funds for students and grants for faculty. But Gould said much of what K-State does for rural communities is just a part of what K-Staters do anyway, through class projects and other research.

"We build this assistance into our daily lives here at the university," she said. "This provides research opportunities for faculty and a better, different kind of experience for students. It's a win-win for all and we help communities in the process.

"We have a culture on this campus of working with communities."

For more information on the Kansas Center for Rural Initiatives, go to http://www.k-state.edu/kcri

Winter 2003