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Wait list limits effectiveness of opportunity zone

Staff writer

Applicants to a state program that helps pay off student loan debt may be in for a wait of up to seven years.

The Rural Opportunity Zone program is meant to encourage young people to move to rural counties by collaborating with the state to help pay down college debt, said Patty Clark, deputy secretary for Kansas Department of Commerce.

“You’d be surprised at the people with college degrees, up to doctorate degrees, living and working in rural counties,” she said. “And that’s aside from this program.”

Qualifying applicants must be moving from a non-ROZ county to a ROZ county, and have at least an associate’s degree, but there is a long wait for payment.

There are 14 Marion County applicants who are already qualified or awaiting approval, one with payment pending, and two who received their first payment in January. Most have been on the wait list four years or more, with six from 2012.

The annual award, $4,500 in the case of Marion County, is decided during Kansas’ budget preparation.

The county pays $1,500 each for three recipients, which is matched by the state. The student loan help continues for up to five years.

Hillsboro’s economic development director Anthony Roy worked with the ROZ program while he lived in Ness County, and said having to wait for assistance happened there, too.

“Maybe not to this extent, but I think this is common all over the state,” he said.

People who move to Marion County from another state can get their income tax waived for up to five years, as well.

“The ROZ program is great because we need to attract young, educated people to our community,” Roy said.

“If you ask businesses in Hillsboro, a majority will say their biggest problem is workforce. They don’t have the people to fill open positions.”

Originally, half the money for each recipient came from the county and half from the state, but in the past few years, it was decided that employers or cities could take the place of counties as sponsors.

While the ROZ program is beneficial, there needs to be less time spent on the wait list to make it a viable county resource, Roy said.

“The problem is that I don’t know if it’s really being used to recruit people,” he said. “It’s hard to say, ‘Move to Marion County because we have this ROZ program, but it’s going to take seven years before you see any money.’ It doesn’t work very well.”

Having employers support the program would be beneficial because it would boost the number of applicants, but businesses would not have to field the full financial burden, Roy said.

“This program can be very useful for private companies, school districts, or hospitals in recruiting staff,” he said “The employer is only required to pay half and the state pays the other half so that’s an incentive to go out and attract educated people.”

Last modified July 25, 2019

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