KHI News Service

Racing for regional solidarity

By Mike Sherry | November 12, 2012

Tim Fairchild is nearly four decades removed from his Chanute High School football career, but he still roots for his hometown squad to kick the stuffing out of archrival Iola, just as he relished the Blue Comets’ 14-7 win against the Mustangs his senior year.

But that type of gridiron rivalry among southeast Kansas towns has been a hindrance when carried over into areas such as business recruitment or community improvement, said Fairchild, a banker and economic development official.

So, he is among community boosters from nearby Iola and Humboldt and Chanute who helped organize a new sporting event intended to foster the sort of regional cooperation that leaders in the state’s poorest region hope ultimately will lead to a revitalized economy and improved health for the residents.

Most studies show that poverty often co-exists with poor health in a community and southeast Kansas counties rank not only among the state’s most impoverished but also the least healthy.

“If we can build some ways to communicate that acknowledges the joy of this battle — the satisfaction of working as a unit — (while also improving) the health and well-being of our area, then we’ve got it all,” Fairchild said.

The inaugural Portland Alley Marathon, named for the type of cement produced at plants in the Chanute-Humboldt-Iola corridor, was held Nov. 3. It drew 88 runners, including some who ran the whole 26-mile route and teams that split the race into legs. Runners ranged in age from 15 to 61. A 49-year-old Manhattan man won with a time of 3 hours 20 minutes.

Main sponsors of the race were the Chanute Regional Development Authority and Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit group that works to promote healthy lifestyles among county residents.

The Portland Alley race dovetails with other initiatives in Allen, Neosho and surrounding counties aimed at improving the region’s health and prosperity.

The efforts include Project 17, named for the number of counties that have joined together as part of the effort to improve the region.

Earlier this year, Project 17 was awarded $715,000 in grants from the U.S. departments of agriculture and commerce. It was one of 13 recipients nationwide of the Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator grant. The money will be used to map the region’s assets and connect area business with “innovation resources,” with the goal of boosting the manufacturing sector. Project 17 also received $1 million in training from the Kansas Leadership Center.

Paying larger dividends

The Portland Alley Marathon was the latest in a series of running events staged across the region.

In July, Thrive Allen County drew more than 1,000 registrants for its fourth-annual Mad Bomber 5K walk/run, an event that starts at midnight. Also during the summer, Chanute held its second annual Journey Through the Jungle sprint triathlon, which played off the town’s Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum.

Among the bonds developed through the run was the one between Fairchild and 35-year-old David Toland, executive director of Thrive Allen County. Fairchild knew Toland’s father, an Iola attorney, from Fairchild’s time with Emprise Bank in Iola.

Brainstorming for what would become the Portland Alley event began when Toland first contacted Fairchild in August 2011, after reading a newspaper article about the initial safari triathlon. The two met face-to-face a few months later at a Project 17 meeting in Iola.

Toland said friendships like the one he forged with Fairchild could pay larger dividends.

“I feel like we could work together on an economic development project, on a housing project, or another marathon, or a bike race, or whatever it may be,” he said, “because of the relationships we have built through this event, and that has not been the case in the past.”

Organizers already have talked about reversing the route next year to start in Iola and end in Chanute. One benefit of that, Fairchild said, is that participants likely would have a tailwind.

Mona Hull, 40, grew up in rural Iola, went to school in Humboldt, and now owns a child care center with her husband in Iola.

She said she grew up with an understanding of the historical competition among communities in the region. She led Team Mona, the eight-person group that finished the Portland Alley run in 4 hours and 18 minutes.

She said she was happy to see the camaraderie, evidenced by teams from rival cement plants cheering each other on. She said she was less pleased that individual runners beat her team.

“That’s why we are thinking next year we are going to beat our time,” Hull said with a laugh. “It seems like we need to do a little bit more work.”

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