Gold Standard, Brainstorming, New Chamber Coffee and Community Forum

Friday and Saturday last week, 200 people representing all aspects of rural living from around Kansas converged on the Meridian center in Newton, KS for The Big Rural Brainstorm, sponsored by the Kansas Sampler Foundation. The foundtion’s purpose is to promote all things rural in Kansas.    

One of the small groups I asked to sit in on sought to determine what a Gold Standard for a rural town might be.  I was drawn to it after attending January’s Belleville Community Forum where several people in the community began brainstorming the possibilities for a brand and theme for Belleville to help us market our town to the rest of the world.

Both the Belleville community forum and the gold standard session focused on a key point everyone who loves living in a rural community needs to keep in mind.  How we present our town to the world will make a large impact on the quantity and quality of visitors we will have the opportunity to serve.   Makes sense, but what does it really mean?  

An economic development pro in our gold standard group shared a story with us about why Seimens Energy wind power business recently chose Woodward, OK for the home of its new service and distribution facility.  It drove home the importance of how travel and tourism is an important component of economic developement  for towns.  Most people, as well as companies, first visit a community several times before they ever decide to move there.  The first impressions they come away determine the final outcome.

When Seimens sought a town to build their facility, they sent out “secret shoppers” to the community to learn about how the people who lived there felt about the town.  The people of Woodward were friendly, helpful, and proud of their town, could tell visitors where to eat, where to shop, and what to do in the area.   The group talked about what could be done to infuse rural towns everywhere, regardless of size or amenities, with that sort of pride.   

Nick Levendofsky, a Farmer’s Union representative from Republic, Kansas, and I spoke during one of the breaks.  He attended a small group focused on what small towns that have lost their school and grocery stores can do to promote themselves and stay vibrant.  Marci Penner, the organizer of the conference, earlier empowered everyone with a yellow card that we could pull to stop negative conversations.  He and another in their group used it to turn the conversation around.  Not only did he spread the word about what the town of Republic had done with the school house, he was also inspired to action, and left the conference with plans to work to build a ramp to the Rae Hobson Memorial Library so the aging population of Republic can continue to use it.   

“We need to stop complaining about all that we don’t have, and start working to improve and protect what we do have,” he said.  

Positive thinking and empowering ideas often come from brainstorming sessions.  The Belleville Chamber-Main Street board took action on one idea that surfaced at the community forum. A need was identified.  People in the community need to have a way of getting together on a regular basis so they can not only become informed about what is going on in and round town, but also to access people and resources to assist in the projects they face.   At 8 a.m. on Thursday morning, People’s Exchange bank  will sponsor the first weekly Chamber-Mainstreet coffee hour at the Belleville City Hall meeting room.  Anyone in the community is welcome to attend.   The Chamber of Commerce in Concordia, Kansas, has been holding a similar coffee for over a decade now,  with members from every aspect of community in attendance.  With any luck, Belleville will find a way to take it to a new level.  

Interview with Erica Nelson, Lucas, KS

 

 

I met Erica Nelson at the Big Rural Brainstorm in Newton, KS on February 3 and 4.  During one of the breaks, I stepped outside of the Meridian center, and saw the Art Car.  I was compelled to go back in and get my camera and take photos.  Then, I had to find the person who drove it!  This talking photo gallery is the outcome.  I hope it compells you to take a detour the next time you drive through Kansas on I-70 and visit Lucas.  You will never forget it.

New Focus

“We’re not dying, we’re fighting!” is a sentiment shared by Republic County Economic Development director Jenny Russell last year which really sums up the attitude of many not only in North Central Kansas, but throughout America who still believe life in a rural town is valuable.
I finally decided on a focus for this blog.  I feel I’m uniquely positioned to deliver insights and comparisons on rural and small town living, reports on culture and the arts in rural North Central Kansas,  and on what the people of this area are doing to hang on to their identities and communities amid continued urban out-migration.
I’ve learned over the past nine years quite a bit about making the transition from city life to rural-town life.  Attitude really is everything.  Some of what I’ve learned came as a big surprise to me, but over time it began to make sense.

Here is a little about me, and how I came to live in a rural town in North Central Kansas.
In 2003, I made a radical life change.
I grew up and lived in the Denver Metro area, and was a SAHM of three children.  Sitting in the drivers seat of the mini-van for hours on end in the daily quest to get from home to store, park, school and home again was getting to me.
I moved to Concordia, a rural town in North Central Kansas, 500 miles from family, with a plan to purchase and manage a handful of rental properties, start a business and raise my kids.  My friends thought I’d lost my mind, moving to a place where the nearest Target store was over 50 miles away and the nearest Starbucks over 100 miles away.  There were no private schools or charter schools within reasonable driving distance.  At the time, there were no movie theaters within a 50 mile radius either.
My family, on the other hand, was supportive.  We’d taken several drives in the country when I was a child, and often we’d talk about what it would be like if we moved to the country.  None of us really understood what life would really be like, I learned later, but we were intrigued.
In June,2003, after purchasing three fixer-uppers, I loaded up the minivan with the kids and the dog and what tools and belongings I could pack in, and we drove to Kansas intending to spend a month staying at and working on the one that needed the most work.  In the mornings, I’d let the kids play and we’d go for walks to explore our new town.  During the hottest part of the day, we’d stay in and watch videos in the air-conditioning.   In the evening, we’d go down to the public pool and swim to cool off, have dinner and then I’d put them to bed. That’s when I stripped wallpaper and cleaned mold off walls, peeled off floral “walleeze” from cabinets and wood trim, cleaned cigarette smoke residue from all surfaces, and scrubbed and polished and painted everything I could to bring the house to a habitable condition.
One month turned into the whole summer.  Soon, it would be time to head back home to Lakewood, and get the kids ready for school.  Over that summer, I reflected, I’d come to be friends with my Kansas neighbors, something that eluded me back home where front-of-the-house attached two-car garages allowed most of my neighbors there to avoid contact with one another.  In our small town, the kids and I could walk to the library, the store and the park. Back home, it would take us the same amount of time to get in the van, travel out of our subdivision and onto the highway we would need to take to get to similar destinations.
I decided then, that we would make our move permanent, and I enrolled my kids in the Concordia school system.
Since then, I’ve owned a few businesses, survived a divorce, and began my new career as a reporter for The Belleville Telescope, a weekly county paper.  I travel back to visit family in Denver several times a year, and as much as I love seeing my family and experiencing great restaurants, after a few days of sitting in traffic to get to these great places, I can’t wait to get home again.