What Rural Areas Everywhere Can Learn From Kansas

by Joanne Steele on June 17, 2010

I told you that I’d tell you more on Monday about Marci Penner and the Kansas Sampler Foundation. I can’t wait.

Marci Penner in her office in Inman, Kansas

As I sat last night with Marci and her assistant and friend, WenDee, I was reminded of the Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

I heard details about how this organization made up of two paid staff, a small group of dedicated volunteers (Marci’s parents) and a board of 6 have changed how Kansans think about their rural communities and how rural residents think about themselves.

I can’t think of a state or province anywhere with ONE person so committed and dedicated that they personally visited and learned about every single small town in their region. That’s what Marci has done… all 600+ towns. And she’s determined to do it again next year. Why?

In her words,

1. “To help these small towns understand that they really do matter.”

2. “To learn first hand from the rural experts who live everyday in these communities that are the repositories of Kansas rural culture.”

3. “To be continuously updated on their successes, failures, needs and insights – things that in my capacity as a Kansas rural expert I am often asked about by legislators, governmental agencies, non-profits and organizations.”

4. “Because it feeds me. If I spent all day in my office on the phone or staring at my computer screen, I’d be a less effective advocate for rural Kansas…. And I’d have a whole lot less fun.”

Over the past year I’ve met, talked to and emailed back and forth with dedicated rural experts all over the planet, but I’ve yet to find another person who combines that dedication to “rural” with an uncanny ability to implement projects to help rural communities, and make them successful!!

The Grocery Store Conference that just ended in Kansas was Marci’s concept way back in 2001. She passed it on to Kansas State University Center for Engagement and Community Development in 2006 to free up her time for another genius idea to help rural communities.

She originated the idea of Rural Culture Elements, which has helped Kansas towns with populations as small as 6 (!) to discover their assets. Then she created a host of programs that help small towns USE what they discover. Check out the 8 Wonders of Kansas – part of this project.

She started the concept of Explorer Tourism to connect rural communities with visitors who will love them just the way they are. This happened years ago before we started hearing about “authentic experiences” in tourism.

She has seen the need to listen to and support young people interested in returning or staying in rural communities. Her answer is a new organization she calls “Power Up Kansas.

She’s been an advocate for “local” long before the idea was popular. She ALWAYS pays full price for everything she buys everywhere she goes, and refuses to market using coupons as lures – “Rural is worth the full price,” in her words.

And there’s more.

Here’s the thing. What Marci is doing has put Kansas on the cutting edge of rural development and rural tourism. Others have tried to copy her programs in other states, and have been only marginally successful.

And Marci understands why. She has created a multifaceted system, every piece of which is equally important to the success of the whole program.

Watch RuralTourismMarketing.com in the coming months. These Kansas successes are too valuable not to be available in rural areas all over the world.

Marci and I will be selecting a number of regions and organizations to work with as pilot projects. Interested?

1 Linda Gross July 11, 2010 at 9:01 am

Hi Joanne, I am a Kansas native (Manhattan), now living in Arizona and was back recently visiting KNS after 25 years. It is a dif. state now and I see Marci’s handiwork everywhere – from Wamego to Kansas City! It is true that folks in small communities often don’t realize the assets they have. And it helps to be reminded.
As a publisher and promoter of all things rural for my small community of Globe-Miami AZ, I love your blog (great ideas and insights) and applaud Marci.
I’d love to work with the two of you on a pilot program if you’re interested in rural AZ!

2 Joanne Steele July 11, 2010 at 9:10 am

Hi Linda,
I know Globe, AZ well! I grew up in Arizona spending most summers with my grandparents on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation. Let’s talk about an Arizona project. You have witnessed in Kansas how the Get Rural program helps rural communities learn about themselves and then connect better regionally for mutual economic development benefit. It is a great model for small town Arizona.

3 Becky McCray June 17, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Marci and WenDee are amazing. Their material is absolutely outstanding, and more than anyone else, they really understand rural issues.

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