By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter
FAIRWAY — Throwing a few dollars into a hat to help your community is a long-standing tradition in Kansas.
Even the state Commerce Department has been chipping in for nearly three decades to help small towns spiff up Main Street store fronts and offer guidance to business owners in helping communities to thrive.
That ended last week, when State Commerce Secretary Pat George unexpectedly e-mailed 25 Kansas communities that a 27-year-old program known as Kansas Main Street was being cut from the state budget. The reason: federal and state budgets are likely to be smaller next year, George said.
Kansas Main Street is not federally funded, its money coming from a sliver of some $42 million in state lottery money used to fund economic development. But the potential loss of significant federal funding is daunting, because that amounts to about 31 percent, or $66 million, of the department’s total $214 million budget, said Commerce spokesman Dan Lara.
“We are not abandoning those communities,” Lara said. “We have other programs, such as community development block grants and rural opportunity zones for them.”
Neither Lara nor other Kansas Commerce Department officials were unable to say this week how much money the move would save. Kansas Main Street’s biggest outlay — outside administrative costs that are the salaries of 18 now unemployed state workers — is primarily a series of small interest-free loans for $20,000 or less made to members of Main Street groups in 25 communities.
Most day-to-day operations of established local Main Street organizations won’t be affected by the move, because those are financed by local business owners, who also match the state loans.
Ann Engel, director of McPherson Main Street Inc., the nonprofit local program arm in McPherson, said the biggest losses to communities such as hers’ are the opportunities for shop talk and training, which the state offered. Kansas Main Street’s next statewide educational conference, scheduled for next month in Emporia, was canceled.
“We’re a small community, “ Engle said. “We don’t have many chances to get together to share ideas with other communities to talk about what works and what doesn’t.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit umbrella organization that coordinates and supports Main Street programs nationally, plans to step in and provide some of the technical support that Kansas no longer offers, said Valecia Crisafulli, its acting director.
“Kansas was one of our strongest programs,” Crisafulli said. “This was devastating news.”
Contact Gene Meyer at gene,email@example.com