Central Appalachia is certainly not the only region of the country that has ever faced an economic transition of the size and scale of the one we’re facing now. Almost all rural regions of the country are trying to figure out their best path forward. The lucky thing for Appalachia is, we can take a look at what other regions are doing, and have already done, and learn from their successes and failures.
The perfect example is Kansas, a state that has seen its rural population decrease almost exponentially since 2000. To try and reverse this trend, Kansas governments and local residents have started several initiatives aimed at helping rural areas survive.
The state government started the Rural Opportunity Zones program in 2011 in 50 rural counties that had at least a 10 percent decrease in their population since 2000. The program entices recent college graduates to move to the state’s rural areas with the promise of forgiving $15,000 of their student loan debt if they stay for at least five years. It also “abates income taxes for up to five years for anyone who lived outside of Kansas for more than five years, hasn’t earned more than $10,000 in Kansas-based income for five years and moves into a ROZ county.”
Just two years after the start of the program, 73 of Kansas’ 105 counties are enrolled, and 83 people have claimed the ROZ tax credit on their 2012 returns, meaning the program seems to be picking up steam.
Some Kansas governments and development agencies are offering free land in rural areas to anyone willing to move and live there for a certain number of years, similar to the Homestead Act of 1862. And residents in Sedan, Kan., are creating their own version of homegrown development by raising money to build a library for the town of 1,093, because, as community leader and library board member Judy Tolbert said, “the project has the potential to unite the community.” Sedan residents have rallied before to help rebuild their community by selling bricks bearing the buyer’s name and cleaning up garbage from the creek that runs through the town.
It’s clear the people of Kansas, including its elected officials, aren’t willing to give up on the state’s rural areas. In fact, they are willing to fight for them. Could the same be said about the governments and residents of Central Appalachia?
I think the answer is a resounding yes. And surely the example of regions and states like Kansas could be a beacon in the confusing haze we’re experiencing now as we try to find some clear paths forward into economic renewal.