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How Emporia, Kansas, Fights Rural Brain Drain: ‘Broadband Is The New Railroad’

Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Emporia, Kansas, population 24,700, has always been home to manufacturing. City leaders now hope to bring more technology jobs to the area.

A small city in Kansas is determined to prove The Onion wrong.

Folks in Emporia, Kansas, weren’t laughing when the satirical paper named it “best town to escape from” in 2017. In fact, the “brain drain” from rural areas has been a problem across the country for decades. Since 2000, Emporia's population has declined more than 7 percent. It's now home to 24,724 people.

“We understood that nobody was going to invest in us if we didn’t,” says Casey Woods, executive director of Emporia Main Street, a non-profit that advocates for local businesses and heritage.

Woods and other city leaders think they have a solution. They plan to make Emporia a rural tech hub built with local investment in a fiber network, assistance from the Rural Innovation Initiative, and a long-held entrepreneurial spirit.

Emporia was, after all, “named after the marketplace, the emporium,” says City Commissioner Rob Gilligan said. “Business and enterprise was always that founding idea.”

That idea dates back to the end of the Civil War, when Emporia become a big railroad hub.

“Broadband is the new railroad,” Woods says. “Broadband is that new iteration. It represents commerce, just in a digital format.”

Credit Peggy Lowe / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Casey Woods is executive director of Emporia Main Street, a nonprofit agency supporting businesses along the city's Commercial Street.

That’s where Emporia had a leg up. A local company, Valu-Net, had raised enough through local investors and a federal Small Business Administration loan and built a fiber network that debuted in 2011.

The network was built with “small town wealth,” says Valu-Net's president, Rick Tidwell.

“There were a lot of people interested in investing in us locally,” Tidwell says. “Over about a two-year period, we raised almost $6.5 million locally, with local investors that are the people you see on the street, the people you deal with every day.”

That embedded fiber network was one of the prerequisites that helped Emporia get help from the Rural Innovation Initiative, a non-profit founded by a former Google executive that focuses on communities in economic distress. Other requirements were a partnership with an existing college or university (Emporia State University), available real estate and an existing non-profit organization to lead the initiative.

The Rural Innovation Initiative offered technical assistance to Emporia, helping build a business incubator and fabrication lab attached to Emporia Main Street, large now-empty rooms looking out on Commercial Street.

The goal is to provide support for 45 entrepreneurs who will launch at least nine business and create 30 new jobs for the region. To do that, the city has applied for a $750,000 matching i6 Challenge Grant from the U.S. Economic Development Association. The city has already raised $800,000 though it’s “Homegrown Campaign.”

Leaders also hope to combat the brain drain by partnering with Emporia State, Flint Hills Technical College and local school districts.

Tyler Curtis, assistant vice president for advancement at Emporia State University, says the grant money will help with training students through the incubator or within the schools. They hope that will attract younger people to stay put in Emporia, he said.

“Our ecosystem is such that we get them started and they go out and they never circled back,” he said. “So how can we close that loop?”

Emporia’s effort goes against the “entrenched narrative of rural America being a place of deficits,” says Katharine Ferguson, associate director of the Aspen Institute’s Community Strategies Group.

She says Emporia’s approach reflects a shift in how economic development is being done.

Instead of using tax breaks to attract business, Ferguson says some communities are advancing a bottom-up approach to economic development, focusing on local institutions and systems that have an emphasis on wealth building rather than growth alone.

“Development is how you increase the standard of living for your residents,” she says. “That means that the citizens of a place have the amenities and the lifestyle and the support and the income that they need, the wealth and the security to live comfortably.”

Peggy Lowe is a hub reporter for Marketplace, American Public Media's national business show, where this story first aired. She’s on Twitter at @peggyllowe.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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