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Rolling out the welcome mat

Cowtowns & Skyscrapers: Tools are out there for those graduates who want to return to rural Kansas.

Jennifer M. Latzke, Editor

May 17, 2024

3 Min Read
back of head, male graduate wearing mortarboard
RETURN TO RURAL: As graduation season is underway, many young people are thinking about their futures. Changes to the Kansas Rural Opportunity Zone Program may make rural Kansas more attractive — if we roll out the welcome mat.Rattankun Thongbun/Getty Images

In mid-April, the Kansas Department of Commerce announced some changes to the Rural Opportunity Zones program that should improve participation for those people moving to rural Kansas counties.

Now, those individuals with an associate degree or higher who move to a designated ROZ county they haven’t lived in for the preceding two years are eligible to have up to $15,000 in student loan debt repaid. This reduces the time living out of the county to two years, from five years.

And those rural residents who lived in college dorms or off-campus housing during college but kept their permanent address on their driver’s license as their parents’ residence, are now eligible to participate in the program when they return back to that home community after they graduate — provided that home community is in a designated ROZ county.

The new rules also help those who are working outside of Kansas on an internship, a practicum or residency, or those traveling nurses who want to establish permanent residency in a ROZ county.

The recent changes also broadened the pool of eligible sponsors for the repayment program, including: employers, foundations, cities, chambers of commerce, Main Street organizations and other community or economic development groups. This means we can use more people and agencies in our rural communities to recruit and retain bright minds.

This is an example of making the program rules work for the intended purpose, which is making sure that those Kansans who go get higher education in our state’s institutions can find opportunities to bring those talents back home.

Next steps

Fixing these bits of the ROZ program is one thing, but implementing it in our rural communities? That’s on all of us, from the city council to the county commission and every agency, organization and individual in between.

First, we need to take stock of the other amenities in our communities that make it attractive to resettlement. Even more important, we need to take an honest look at those areas that need investment and further work.

It’s one thing to attract young professional families to your ROZ county to work, but is there affordable and high-quality housing for them available? Many of our rural towns have multiple dilapidated houses just rotting in city blocks for one reason or another. It’s time for our rural towns to organize committees to look at the housing with clear eyes and start the necessary process to address the blight. And we also must start looking at zoning rules — and communicate with locals that growth takes housing.

The next step should be to take a serious and sober look at the additional job opportunities for spouses in your community. Are there jobs that match their professional credentials? Is there an opportunity for them to invest in and build a business on Main Street? Or, is the broadband connectivity stable and fast enough for them to work from home in another career?

We also need to look at the availability of licensed, high-quality, affordable childcare for our young families. And for those of you who don’t think this is a part of your community’s vital infrastructure? That it’s just a “women’s issue?” I challenge you to ask the young couples in your sphere what their childcare situation is, and how much they spend a month, per child.

Welcome home

So many people want others to do the work for them. They want young families and young professionals to return home, but they aren’t willing to give up any skin in the game. They don’t want to invest the dollars into commonsense changes in our communities that make it feasible and attractive for young people to return and plant roots.

Government programs can only go so far, friends. It’s up to each of us to roll up our sleeves, make our communities attractive for relocation and welcome the next generation home to rural Kansas.

Learn more about the Kansas ROZ Program here: ROZ-applicant-FAQ-FY24.pdf (kansascommerce.gov).

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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