Agency offers answers to help preserve small communities

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Local News

October 1, 2018 - 11:02 AM

LAHARPE — A glimpse at LaHarpe is a glimpse at countless rural communities across America, Harry Lee Jr. noted.
“We’ve got a lot of homes that need replacing, and we need replacement homes,” Lee said. “And we need businesses so that we can have jobs.”
He’s not sure which need is more pressing, calling it a chicken-and-egg scenario.
“I don’t know which happens first,” he said, “but we need to work on both of them.”
Lee spoke at a small gathering Tuesday of USDA Rural Development officers, including state director Lynne Hinrichsen, and representatives of LaHarpe, Bronson, Uniontown and Thrive Allen County.
The impetus for the meeting, Lee explained, was to share ideas on how small communities can maintain viability.
Hinrichsen kicked off the round-table discussion, featuring Shekinah Bailey, a general field representative for Rural Development, Randy Snider, an RD program director, and Dan Fischer, Rural Development’s community program director.
“It comes down to what the secretary of USDA asked us to do, to help rural areas remain prosperous, growing and thriving,” Hinrichsen said. “I don’t want to hear communities losing people.
“We’ve been asked to be innovative,” she continued. “It’s not business as usual, and that’s coming straight out of D.C., which may surprise a lot of people. The government is not going to do business as usual. We’re going to be proactive and not reactive.
We’re here to answer questions and find solutions.”

EACH of the Rural Development visitors touched on a number of programs, how they function, and what communities might want to target for specific needs.
Each avenue follows the “I-P-I” model, Hinrichsen said, referring to infrastructure, partnerships and innovations.
Infrastructure covers a wide area, from roadways, water and sewer treatment, telecommunications and electric services; “anything needed to keep a community going and connected, and to remain a draw to make people want to live there,” she said.
Partnerships are the second leg. Rural Development deals with other governmental agencies, private businesses, lenders, communities, non-profit organizations and residents.
“There’s not much you can do in today’s world, in USDA world, that does not involve a partner, when it comes to leveraging support,” added Snider.
Bailey noted Thrive Allen County is an ideal partner with Rural Development because of the myriad services it can assist with.
“A program like Thrive can bring some great grant possibilities,” Bailey said.
The final portion, innovation, involves a little bit of everything, Hinrichsen said.
“What the the best practices in other communities across the nation can we replicate?” She said. “What can we do differently. Thinking outside the box is how I look at it.”

BAILEY touched on the partnerships and collaboration aspect.
He pointed to examples in Alaska and Maine — states on opposite sides of the continent, but with several similarities to Kansas.
Rural communities in Maine, for example, have set up a telemedicine network that’s exponentially more far-reaching than Kansas’ with half the infrastructure.
A specialist can do a remote examination, consultation and follow-up appointments.
That would allow a rural community — say LaHarpe or Uniontown — to offer a virtual medical clinic, Bailey said.
“You don’t need a full-size clinic,” he said. “All you need is equipment,” which in turn could be funded by a USDA grant.
That’s where the partnerships and innovation come from, to find ideas to bring services to rural areas without related construction costs.
Alaska follows a similar model for its schooling. Interactive distance learning ensures remote schools still have qualified instructors.
“There’s a lot out there,” Bailey said. “We get too set in our ways in what we can and can’t have. The Internet has opened those doors wide open.”
The same goes for commerce. A small mom-and-pop shop could sell its wares online.
“I know several businesses where their warehouse is bigger than their store,” he said.

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