Rural communities in western Kansas have found that when they work together, they are stronger. By forming a regional economic development alliance, called the western Kansas Rural Economic Development Alliance (wKREDA), the member counties were able to accomplish many of their economic and political goals previously thought only possible through forming consolidated regional governments. Now a region that once struggled with retaining residents and attracting new industry has made major strides in economic resiliency as a result of adopting a regional ruralism model for economic development.
Western Kansas is a large region, approximately the size of Ohio, known mostly for growing grain and raising livestock. The region has a relatively small population of approximately 350,000 people, with no one county having more than 40,000 people. The small, isolated communities in the region were facing problems with attracting new businesses and retaining residents. In addition, the needs of western Kansas communities were not a major concern for most members of the state legislature. In the 1990s, state lawmakers proposed consolidating the state’s 105 counties into 13 mega-counties, but the initiative failed to pass. Western Kansas counties were interested in regional cooperation, but not in losing their unique identities.
The rural, regional approach to the problem is the western Kansas Rural Economic Development Alliance (wKREDA), where north and south subregions are represented equally on the board of directors and no one community’s interests are prioritized over another community’s. The wKREDA is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization, which originally included 46 counties and now represents 53 of the state’s 105 counties. Functioning mainly as an economic development alliance, wKREDA has marketed western Kansas as a region with much success.
The alliance has succeeded in promoting the region to industries that can benefit from what western Kansas has to offer: extensive open space, inexpensive property, pro-farming communities and high-quality feed production. Starting with the low-hanging fruit of dairy farms, wKREDA was able to build a strong regional network and industry respect, allowing continued success in other industries. Since 1995, wKREDA has helped bring to the region over 20 mega-dairy operations, many smaller dairy farms, small-scale manufacturing, retail, value-added agriculture, distribution and transportation support service businesses, agro-tourism and warehouses. A focus on the wind energy industry has also developed.
There is still a fair amount of competition between Kansas communities, but it is friendly competition. The communities know that when they pool their resources, they are able to bring in far larger companies than any one community could alone. Working together through wKREDA, the communities of Western Kansas also have a strong collective voice in state government. After decades of ignoring the western half of the state, lawmakers in Topeka (the capital) now listen.
Afraid of losing their unique identities, participation in a regional collaboration with Western Kansas communities had previously been rejected. Yet, as counties began facing economic declines independently, they joined wKREDA. Participation in wKREDA provided economic assistance without loss of individuality. For instance, wKREDA develops annual position papers that outline issues of concern among all wKREDA members. However, when counties don’t agree on a particular issue, wKREDA does not comment to the Kansas Legislature, allowing individuals to lobby on their own behalf.
- The alliance facilitates regional networking through quarterly meetings, conferences, e-mail lists and a website to promote economic development and cooperation, and increase legislative clout.
- The alliance lobbies on behalf of their communities for tax incentives to attract and retain agricultural businesses.
- Assistance is offered to businesses looking to move to western Kansas and support is given to existing businesses through the alliance.
- By helping rural communities leverage their resources, the alliance allows Western Kansas to compete for business internationally.
Regional coordination and cooperation can greatly benefit the local economies of participating communities. Despite their hesitation to form a regional governing body, the counties of western Kansas have made major strides in economic resiliency and improved their influence in state government through participation in the wKREDA.