ROZ program aims to revitalize rural Kansas
By Darrin Cline
At a quick glance, there is nothing out of the ordinary about Haviland, Kan., a small western farming community where the grain elevator is the most prominent feature. However, for young professionals like Tiffany Van Dame, these small towns that were once thought of as dots on the horizon are becoming havens of opportunity.
In an effort to preserve the vitality and integrity of rural Kansas, the state launched the Rural Opportunity Zone program just over a year ago, and officials hope the early results are a sign of things to come.
"We have received about 400 applications so far. We have people from 31 states applying for the program," said Kansas Secretary of Commerce Pat George.
Proposed by Gov. Sam Brownback and approved by the state legislature, the ROZ program classified 50 counties in the state that would be eligible. According to George, the idea was born during discussions over budget planning during Brownback's first term in office. They identified counties that had seen double-digit losses in population percentage over the last decade.
The program implements two incentives meant to draw in young professionals and recent college grads. First, the state offers income tax abatement. According to the state, eligible candidates can receive a credit for the entirety of their state income tax liability for any year in which they qualify. The time frame for taxable years currently runs from 2012 to 2017.
Additionally, the state is also offering student loan reimbursement. Individuals who qualify can receive annual payments of up to 20 percent of their outstanding student loan balance, up to $15,000 across a five-year span. In order to qualify, the individual must have attained an associate's, bachelor's or post-graduate degree prior to application.
Van Dame was one the first accepted applicants. After graduating from Barclay College in Haviland in 2009, Van Dame worked for a brief period in Oregon before being offered a position at her alma mater. Upon returning to the small western Kansas town in 2011, Van Dame's coworkers informed her of the ROZ program.
"I first found out about it when I got back here in August (of 2011). I had no idea about it, didn't know it was available," said Van Dame. "It just seemed too good to be true but I looked into it and realized I met all of the qualifications."
The Ohio native began the application process shortly after her return, and within a few months was accepted for the student loan reimbursements.
Van Dame believes that many of these small rural areas will be able to support an influx of young professionals. While many people are concerned that the rural communities will not have sufficient employment and social opportunities for recent college graduates, Van Dame believes that "if she's bored, it's her own fault."
"I think the biggest question anywhere is jobs and what's available and what are people interested in. Living in rural Kansas is different than living in a big city but there is a reason why people live here and have lived here for decades; I think it's about finding your niche," Van Dame said.
Of the 50 counties included in the program, 44 offer both incentives. The remaining six offer the tax abatement but do not currently support the student loan repayment portion.
George credits a large push in agriculture, the booming energy industry in the state, and interest from outside companies and entrepreneurs for much of the projected turnaround.
"It's all about jobs," said George in reference to why the western portion of the state saw decline while the eastern third saw considerable population growth.
"We are starting to see the tides turn a bit. We love to see the eastern part of the state grow, but it would be a real pleasure to see growth in the western part of the state by the next census."
Both components of the program set standards for each applicant. For both programs, the individual must have established residency in Kansas after July 1, 2011. However, to qualify for the tax abatement, recipients must have lived outside of the state for five or more years immediately prior to moving to a ROZ county.
Funding for the loan repayment program will be split between the county and the state. This does not absolve those selected from paying their loans should they exceed $15,000. Regular payments must still be made, but according to the state, if the entire debt is repaid to the lender, the remaining ROZ payments will go straight to the individual.
A large component of the state's plan is encouraging recent graduates to move home and return to the family farm and other facets of agriculture.
"People in these counties like to see the young people move back, they really appreciate it," George said, pointing to the shortage of veterinarians in some area as an example of the talented individuals they are trying to attract.
In order to apply, individuals must go through the Kansas Department of Commerce and provide correct documentation, including documentation of residency, vehicle registration, admission to a licensed practicing profession in Kansas, acceptance or offer of permanent employment, Kansas driver's license, or proof of voter registration.
In spite of the state's 6.1 percent growth since 2000, much of the growth has been more urbanized eastern band of counties. While some counties in the eastern quarter of the state have seen population increases over 20 percent in the past decade, some of their counterparts have experienced the polar opposite effect. Kiowa County, in south central Kansas, has seen the greatest drop, losing 22 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010.
The state is currently processing more applicants. While some have been denied acceptance to the program, officials point out that it is often due to failing to provide the required paperwork and completing the process.
When the plan was set in place on July 1, 2011, the state legislature set an ending date of 2017 as well as a cap on funding, but George hopes to see both extended.
"There was an allotment of $1.5 million at that time, but I hope we get more because that means we have seen success with the program."
2012 was the first full year for the program, and successful applicants will begin receiving the student loan reimbursement benefits this fall.
For more information about the Rural Opportunity Zone program, visit the Kansas Department of Commerce website, www.kansascommerce.com.