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Has Kansas’ Moving Incentive Program Spurred the Economy?

The program offered financial incentives to those who were willing to move to the state’s rural areas, places with less than 50,000 residents, in hopes of boosting local economies and combating population decline.

Since 2012, a number of Kansas counties have offered tempting financial incentives for relocation to boost local economies and combat declining population.

The program, operating in 95 of the 105 counties in the state, advertises the areas as "Rural Opportunity Zones," where new residents can receive student loan repayment assistance or potentially qualify for a tax credit to cover 100 percent of state income taxes. Rural areas are defined as places with a population of less than 50,000 residents.

The program receives $1,037,748 annually, according to Trisha Purdon, the director of the Office of Rural Prosperity. Butler, Sedgwick, Reno, Saline, Riley, Shawnee, Douglas, Leavenworth, Wyandotte and Johnson are the only Kansas counties that are not part of the program.

But how many individuals have taken advantage of the program, and is it working?

How Many People Have Relocated to Kansas' Rural Opportunity Zones?

Between 2012 and 2022, 1,670 people have participated in the student loan payment program, receiving a total of about $13.3 million.

According to a program audit reviewed by The Wichita Eagle, 600 people had completed the program and received five years of student loan assistance, 560 had either withdrawn or been disqualified, 260 were involved in the program at the time of the audit, 160 withdrew before receiving any payment and 90 were on the wait list.

Because some tax information may be confidential, it's harder to estimate exactly how many people have participated in the tax credit portion of the program, Purdon said. The audit reports about 1,700 people applied for that part of the program between 2012 and 2022.

While it's hard to pinpoint the influence on the population by the ROZ program, the audit estimates the participating counties still lost about 29,400 residents from 2012 to 2022. An estimated 1,430 individuals moved to ROZ-participating counties in that time for the sole purpose of the program, while the remaining individuals, the audit reports, would have moved to the counties regardless.

The audit reports individuals moving to those counties as part of the ROZ program offset 5 percent of the people who moved out of them.

Some counties saw more changes than others, the audit shows. Rawlins and Scott counties saw a 10 percent boost in population, and Marshall and Nemaha flipped from population loss to a population gain as of 2022.

Purdon said she believes the program has become a valuable tool for workforce recruitment, however.

"When this program was created in 2011 ... they really only were talking about addressing the depopulation of rural areas," she said. "It quickly became a workforce recruitment tool. So businesses and counties were then using it to recruit people to fill critical positions, mostly health care and education positions."

The ROZ program has filled 806 jobs in an 11-year period, the data indicates. Fifty percent of those relocating work in either education or health care.

It's hard to determine if the program has been successful in retaining residents longterm after initial relocation, Purdon said, but the department is trying to find a way to figure it out.

"What we've been able to do [is] based on survey responses," Purdon said. "It's a randomly selected survey that they do every year of all participants in the ROZ program and so typically, it seems like we're keeping at least over half of the ROZ participants over two and half years. That seems to be ... the average. And then it does fall off a little bit more from our survey data."

Kansas Introduces Changes to the ROZ Program

Significant changes to the ROZ program were announced mid-April to broaden the scope of who could qualify for the financial benefits.

Previously, people had to live outside Kansas for five years prior in order to be eligible to receive the student loan debt assistance after moving to a different county. Now, individuals only have to live in a separate location for two years prior to applying.

Additionally, rural residents who lived somewhere else for college, but had their permanent address as their parent's residence will now not be denied entry in the program when returning home after graduating.

"The new rules will make it easier to participate in the program for individuals who complete required internships, practicums and residencies or are traveling nurses to remain in an ROZ county and establish permanent residency there," the April 18 press release reads.

How to Apply for the Kansas ROZ Program

The application period for the ROZ program is open this year through Sept. 30. The applications are available online through the program's portal on the Kansas Department of Commerce's website.

To qualify for student loan assistance, applicants must:

— Have a new address in participating county that was established after the county started participating in the program.

— Have an active student loan balance.

— Provide proof of current address, previous address and student loan balance.

To qualify for the tax credit, individuals must:

— Have moved to an established county between July 1, 2011, and Jan. 1, 2026.

— Must have lived in the Kansas county for the entire tax year the tax credit will be claimed.

— File their tax return before the deadline.

For a full list of qualifications and direct links to the online applications, visit the Kansas Department of Commerce's website.

(c)2024 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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