Community Centered Rural Economic Development Kansas Style

by Joanne Steele on March 30, 2010

The answer to effective sustainable rural redevelopment lies within the individual communities themselves.

What role should rural economic development agencies play?

  • As active listeners.
  • As experts with a system to help locals organize their thoughts.
  • As connective tissue between and among communities ready for collaboration.
  • As a resource for solutions that have worked in other communities.
  • As a source of grant possibilities to implement locally generated and supported projects that are part of a long-term planned outcome.

This is a tall order.

It is common, instead for “experts” to go into an area, assess the “needs” for a rural community to add a tourism component to their economic mix. They often leave without ever having talked to anyone other than city hall and the loudest mouth in town.

It is rare to find a small town in the US that doesn’t have a “tourism study” gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.

I’m on a mission to discover agencies and organizations effectively filling the roles listed above.

Next week I’ll be presenting at the British Columbia Rural Tourism Conference on how the Kansas Sampler Foundation helps rural communities.

The Kansas Sampler Foundation was formed in the mid 1990’s after Executive Director and Kansas resident Marci Penner finished an extended trip through the Kansas countryside.

She observed that Kansas rural communities were rich with culture and history that was being largely overlooked by the locals. By looking without judging, she discovered local treasures in every small town.

Rural Culture Elements

She noted that every aspect of rural community and culture falls into one of eight categories, which she calls the 8 Rural Culture Elements.

Through the Kansas Sampler Foundation, she is working with volunteers from rural communities throughout Kansas to help them identify and inventory their own Rural Culture Elements.

This simple process is transforming communities.

They see their own assets with new eyes.

They begin to understand that they already have something to offer visitors looking for an authentic rural experience.

They have a context for new development. Knowing their Rural Culture Elements helps communities to see where outside grant assistance will help them preserve their local culture and enhance the economic benefit.

The Eight Rural Culture Elements have become so much a part of Kansas culture, a statewide contest has been going on to discover the Eight Wonders of Kansas Culture in time for their sesquicentennial celebration next year.

Explorer Tourism

In addition, the Kansas Sampler Foundation is helping rural communities market themselves to visitors who will appreciate them as they are. KSF callers these visitors Explorers. National Geographic Society calls them Geotourists.

  • They are interested in local culture.
  • They are curious about what is already there.
  • They want their visit to be a part of sustaining that local culture rather than changing or destroying it.
  • They are willing to “do dirt” to get to their destination. They shop at local stores and love to dine at local eateries.

The Kansas Sampler Foundation has started a Kansas based travel club for Explorers. Monthly newsletters and online forums keep Explorers in contact with group travel opportunities and individual discoveries throughout Kansas.

With rural communities having a ready tourism market through Explorer Tourism, the next obvious step was to encourage collaboration among towns. Collaboration, while a good idea, is difficult to implement among small towns for a host of reasons. (This needs to be covered in another post in the future.)

Kansas Sampler Foundation is facilitating collaboration through their soon to go live web site, GetRuralKansas.

Besides featuring rural communities, it clusters all Rural Culture Elements within their eight categories.  This makes it easier for Explorers to create travel itineraries to, for instance, visit all historic soda fountains or see all Kansas Geographic Wonders, or go on a quest to find the best chicken fried steak.

The Internet allows collaboration to happen around Rural Culture Elements through the ingenuity and creativity of the Explorer visitors themselves.

The Kansas Sampler Foundation’s mission encompasses more that facilitating tourism. They’re interested in every aspect of supporting and sustaining the viability of rural communities. They work along side the regional resource conservation and development organizations, the state tourism office and other economic development entities.

Check out an earlier post on the Kansas Sampler Foundation. The more I get to know about this organization the better I like it!

For more ideas on rural development systems that work, look at my 5 part series on Regional Flavor.

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