Missing the opportunity zone

“There’s never been a better time than now to make rural Kansas your new home,” touts the website for Kansas Rural Opportunity Zones.

As an ROZ county, Marion is one of 77 that can offer special state-backed incentives to people who want to live and work in rural communities.

Of course, you can see the rub right away — if it’s such a great lifestyle, why should we need a trail of carrots to lead people here?

And thanks to a combination of factors, the ROZ carrots for Marion County might as well be sour grapes.

Attract new college graduates with $15,000 from the ROZ’s student loan repayment program? Sorry. The county has just two spots for that, already filled, and 25 people on the waiting list. Commissioners renewed the program Monday for five more years, but under the first-come, first-served state rules, they’ll likely never get through the list to actually recruit anyone new.

Not that the program gives them a choice of where to put the money, either. It would make sense to have flexibility to funnel the perk toward high-demand, hard-to-fill positions. But no, the money has to be given to people in the order they got on the waiting list.

Commissioners could have put up more money for their half-share of the $15,000 to increase the available slots, but paying off student loans took a back seat this year to things like hiring more full-time emergency medical technicians.

Employers can swing their own student loan payoff deals with the state if they want to, putting up $7,500 per employee over five years that the state will match. Few, however, have wanted to, and reportedly, none are doing so right now.

As an ROZ county, we can lure employees from out-of-state with the promise of being exempt from paying income tax for five years. Ah, but the catch? They have to have lived outside of Kansas for five consecutive years before moving here. There are others, but that’s the big one.

So, if someone’s spent five years putting down roots elsewhere, what’s the chance they’re going to uproot to come here on their own for an income tax break that’s dwindled under Governor Sam Brownback’s tax cuts?

Meanwhile, the ones most likely to come here for opportunities are the kids we’ve sent off to college. Wouldn’t it be great if that income tax incentive applied to a county high school graduate who went off to Kansas State for four years and wanted to come home? It might just be enough to tip the scales in our favor. But they don’t qualify.

The ROZ student loan repayment flyer proclaims that the program has helped “nearly 1,000 Kansans return home.” The state has roughly 1.5 million jobs; we’ll let you do the math, if you want to, to compute the impact. Hint: You’ll need plenty of zeros.

Like Brownback’s disastrous tax cuts that have failed to produce the economic boom he promised, the supposed benefits of ROZs have, by and large, bypassed Marion County. Stringent regulations preclude tailoring the program to meet our needs.

As usual, we’ll have to forge ahead as best we can.

There are people who want what rural life has to offer; however, there are at least 76 other ROZ counties who want them as badly as we do.

We can’t just sell a generic “rural quality of life” bill of goods and hope to compete. We can’t keep recycling the same stale list of qualities generated at meeting after meeting and make headway.

We have to sell opportunity to create opportunities. It remains to be seen if the county’s economic development committee can target and effectively develop unique selling points that will make the county stand out. At the same time, they’ll fail if they don’t focus on robustly countering the potential negatives, such as lack of skilled labor, with action as well as rhetoric.

As much as we may love it, we’ve learned through attrition that good rural living isn’t an automatic draw. We’ve learned that ill-conceived government incentives offer little help.

There may have been better times to make rural Marion County one’s home, but there’s no day like today. It’s going to take more than a good sales pitch to reverse the flow, but without it we’ll continue to ebb toward the Twilight Zone rather than an opportunity zone.

— david colburn

Last modified Aug. 25, 2016