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Aug. 2, 2012
TOPEKA Two federal agencies have awarded development grants to an initiative underway in southeast Kansas, which organizers hope will help transform the region’s economy and improve residents’ health.
Project 17 - named for the number of participating counties — will receive $215,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program and another $500,000 from the Economic Development Administration, which is housed in the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The grants were awarded as part of the Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge, a national initiative launched to support partnerships deemed critical to small businesses and job creation in rural areas.
Patty Clark, the USDA Rural Development director in Kansas, said Project 17 won out over other rural economic development projects because it was specifically designed to help counties that were accustomed to competing against one another for jobs join together in a new regional partnership.
“The key word there is partnership,” Clark said. “This effort was initiated more than a year ago by four (state) senators and a group of very interested southeast Kansas residents. They were very concerned about their high unemployment rate, their health rankings and their poverty rate, and they said, ‘We want to do something regionally in southeast Kansas.’”
A 2009 report by the Kansas Health Institute that ranked southeast Kansas counties among the least healthy in the state provided the catalyst for what became Project 17.
In addition to the federal grants, the Kansas Leadership Center is providing the project $1 million worth of leadership training. Also, the Advanced Manufacturing Institute at Kansas State University is helping the project steering committee to keep the initiative on track.
“What they really need is a focused strategy, and that’s going to take some hard work,” Clark said. “And that’s what this (the federal grants) combined with the Kansas Leadership Center million-dollar in-kind grant is going to bring to the table. It’s going to help underwrite the building of the strategy.”
Clark said the relatively high concentration of community colleges and several vacant but viable manufacturing facilities in southeast Kansas give area officials the kind of “footprint” they need to design a regional economic development strategy.
Four Republican state senators from the region were instrumental in getting Project 17 off the ground: Sens. Pat Apple of Louisburg, Jeff King of Independence, Bob Marshall of Fort Scott and Dwayne Umbarger of Thayer.
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