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Call for unity resonates at Southeast Kansas economic summit

Senators organize effort to improve region's quality of life

By | November 21, 2011

What began a few years ago as an attempt to improve lagging health rankings in southeast Kansas has morphed into an effort to transform the region’s long-battered economy.

More than 300 people responded last week to an invitation from four state senators to attend the Together We Succeed: Southeast Kansas Economic Summit.

They jammed into the parish hall at St. John’s Catholic Church here on Thursday to talk about what it would take to turn the region’s 17 counties into a unified economic force.

The region is bounded by Oklahoma to the south and Missouri to the east. Its western tier of counties are Chautauqua, Elk and Greenwood in the thinly populated Flint Hills. Coffey, Franklin and Miami counties make up its northern tier. Major towns in the region are Pittsburg, Ottawa, Fort Scott, Independence, Iola, Paola, Parsons, Chanute and Coffeyville. The region’s core nine counties are sometimes referred to as the Little Balkans or the Little Ozarks.

Charles Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, told the crowd that communities in the region must agree to stop competing with one another and start cooperating on a long-term strategy to benefit all.

“Those alliances are key. It cannot be just your little town,” Fluharty said. “This is a 17-county, large geographic regional area with amazing potential to rethink your sense of self. The leadership is in this room.”

Heads nodded in agreement. They had also nodded a few minutes earlier when Gov. Sam Brownback delivered a call to action.

Looking over the crowd, the governor pronounced it the best “gathering of southeast Kansas leadership” he had ever seen. He said the summit had created the best opportunity in years to “reset, restart and refocus” efforts to revitalize the region, which has been in economic decline since the coal mines began playing out, railroad hubs moved elsewhere and the early oil booms subsided.

The region is now the state’s poorest and has been for decades. Its residents are counted among the state’s least healthy and least educated. Area and state leaders have concluded that the best solution to the region’s various problems would be an energized economy. But the riddle of how to make that happen has remained unsolved.<a name="continued"></a>

Brownback said he wanted to get beyond politics and slogans with an eye toward workable solutions.

If that doesn’t happen, he said, “you get 10 years down the road and you’ve invested a bunch of money and the numbers haven’t changed, people’s lives haven’t changed and nobody’s gotten better.”

Brownback said the new initiative should be measured regularly against solid indicators of improvement in areas of health or employment, which he referred to as “the cruelty of the data check."

“And let’s not be scared of doing things differently, if we need to,” he said.

Fluharty said regional leaders should create a new “intermediary organization” to spearhead the initiative and develop the alliances necessary to pull the region together.

“You need to commit today to one another that in three years you’ll be doing things differently or those trend lines (that have troubled the region) will become irreversible,” he said. “There is a point where you cross the Rubicon.”

And patience must be shown to those who step forward to lead the initiative. Those “public entrepreneurs,” Fluharty said, would need leeway to try new things and to sometimes fail.

“We in rural America abuse people who fail,” he said. “We have to change that. We need risk management tools so there’s a constituency to say, as the governor said, ‘We’re in this rowboat together, it is a big ocean, we’re going to stay in it together and we’re not going to nitpick the first three things we didn’t like.’”

Much of the work at the summit was done in breakout groups of about 20 participants each. They crowded into rooms normally used for children’s Sunday school classes. Sitting on small plastic chairs, they talked about how to structure and pay for the initiative. They voted on priorities.

“If we can make this work, it’s going to be utopia,” said Tim Fairchild, a bank vice president from Chanute.

Each participant was given three red stickers to use in the voting. The exercise forced them to choose a handful of objectives on which to focus from a long list.

When the groups reassembled, there was quick consensus. The objective of ending the cycle of poverty and welfare dependency was at the top of virtually everyone’s list. A close second was creating new leadership capacity. Workforce development was third.

Sen. Jeff King, R-Independence, said the fact that so many groups meeting separately agreed on the same priorities made him hopeful that this initiative could succeed where others had failed.

“People from Miami County to Chautauqua County and from different backgrounds see the really dire circumstances that southeast Kansas is in and the need to work together to address it.”

King, who is 36, returned to southeast Kansas to practice law after earning degrees from Yale, Brown and Cambridge.

He and three other Republican senators organized the summit. The others were Sens. Dwayne Umbarger of Thayer, Pat Apple of Louisburg and Bob Marshall of Fort Scott. The state secretaries of transportation, commerce, revenue, agriculture and labor also helped pull the meeting together.

King said any group that sets out to turn the tide in southeast Kansas has its work cut out for it. He said it would take years before it would become clear whether the initiative succeeded.

“We will take two steps forward and one step back a lot in this process,” he said. “If we can learn from the one step back and move forward after that and realize that we don’t have to agree on everything but we have to work together on everything, it will stick. The question is, can we overcome those differences? And that will be what the next five or 10 years is about.”

Gov. Sam Brownback's opening remarks at the SEK Economic Summit