Leaders pray for economic revival
By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 4/2/2014
Project 17 sounds like a secret directive at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
But the nebulous title refers to an initiative formed by a group of state senators in Ottawa’s backyard in 2011 to improve the quality of life and economic opportunities in 17 counties — including Franklin — in Southeast Kansas that comprise the “Together We Succeed: Southeast Kansas Economic Improvement Initiative” — more commonly called Project 17.
The executive director of Project 17 talked about efforts to improve conditions in what she described as one of the most economically challenged regions of the state during the annual Ottawa Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast Tuesday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 401 W. 13th St., Ottawa.
“Ottawa and Franklin County are more blessed than most of the counties [in Project 17],” Heather Morgan told Sara Caylor, Ottawa mayor, and other city and county elected officials, government department heads, civic leaders, ministers and community members in attendance. “You have strong leadership, and Franklin County is one of only three counties in Project 17 — the others are Miami and Crawford — that has experienced a growth in population.”
The other 14 counties in the initiative are Greenwood, Elk, Chautauqua, Coffey, Woodson, Wilson, Montgomery, Anderson, Allen, Neosho, Labette, Linn, Bourbon and Cherokee.
While about 10 percent of the state’s population resides in Southeast Kansas, it has the highest unemployment and poverty rate and the lowest health index rating of any region in Kansas, according to Project 17’s website twsproject17.org
Some residents in Southeast Kansas have discouraged their children from staying in their communities after completing school, Morgan said.
“‘We tell our kids to leave [the region] and never come back,’” Morgan said people have told her.
That negative mind set has to be changed, the executive director said.
A few problems that go hand-in-hand with high unemployment and poor health conditions include substance abuse, high poverty levels, lack of leadership and a lack of job skills, Morgan said. Morgan has driven 23,000 miles across the 17 counties since she took the executive director post in June 2013, she said.
“[Some] employers have told me it’s hard to find workers that can pass a drug test or show up for work every day,” Morgan said.
While more job creation is needed in Southeast Kansas, Morgan said, the region currently has jobs but workers do not have the right skills for those positions.
Internet technology also is lacking in the region, Morgan said.
Internet connectivity is as important as roads, utilities and other infrastructure to compete in today’s business climate, she said. Ten of the 17 counties do not have high-speed broadband Internet services, and most systems in the region operate at 6 megabits-per-second, Morgan said.
“That is really slow,” she said. “Only 14 percent of businesses [in the 17-county area] have websites.”
By contrast, Vyve Broadband’s system in Ottawa operates at 50 megabits-per-second, and the company said earlier this week it was on track to increase that speed to 105 megabits-per-second by summer’s end.
The problems associated with poverty are not limited solely to the extreme southeastern counties in Project 17, Morgan said.
“There are 1,300 kids in Franklin County living in poverty today,” she said.
Project 17 is trying to improve conditions in the region through four areas of focus: health, economic development, leadership training and workforce readiness, Morgan said.
• Health: Southeast Kansas counties have the lowest health index ratings in the state. Project 17 will work to find ways to improve the health of the people in the region.
• Economic Development: The goal for economic development is to create and sustain high paying jobs in the region and increase the competitiveness of area businesses in the marketplace.
• Leadership: Project 17 has established a team of proven leaders from the area and is identifying new leaders to help advance the project. To support this effort, Project 17 was awarded a $1 million dollar leadership training grant from the Kansas Leadership Council.
“This training from [Kansas Leadership Center] will provide participants the opportunity to discover a framework for exercising civic leadership, to develop a better understanding of the challenges facing the region and how Project 17 is working to address those challenges, to learn how to become more involved with Project 17, and to learn a process for developing and working within highly effective teams,” according to Project 17’s website.
For more information about Project 17’s latest activities and regional meetings, go to twsproject17.org
• Workforce: Provide the existing workforce with the job training skills they need.
Since Project 17’s inception, more than 500 people have become involved with the initiative, Morgan said. She encouraged attendees to get involved in the project and to think about what they can contribute to the effort. In addition to getting civic and government leaders involved in Project 17, Morgan said, the initiative needs to get people involved who have not been in leadership roles before in order to be successful.
She encouraged people to think about what would be that “one more thing” they could do each day to advance the initiate. And — quoting what Mayor Caylor told the audience she tells her children each morning — Morgan added, “Do your best.”