Videos & Speeches
Jan 30 2013
In my home State of Kansas, there are hundreds of small communities that line the highways and county roads that stretch across the prairie part of the country. In many of these towns, the populations are shrinking, but they are still called home by thousands of Kansans.
I grew up in one of those small communities out in western Kansas, a place where folks know their neighbors and they try to take care of them. Much of what I know about people, about human nature, is what I learned by growing up in a small town where we all knew each other. I worked at the local hardware store, and swimming pool, the drugstore, had a paper route and got to meet almost everybody in my hometown.
In these small communities across America, people there they work hard, they come together to find commonsense solutions, and they solve problems. They try to make a difference in the life of their families and the community. They also strive to provide a better future for their kids so that every child has the opportunity to grow up, pursue the American dream, and reach their goals.
For rural communities to survive and prosper, citizens have to work together to create their own opportunities for success. What happens here in Washington, DC, has a huge consequence on the future of rural communities in my State. But the reality is that those communities that are going to have a bright future are those that decide on their own to work together within that community to make certain that that’s the case.
An example of a community that rallied together in this way to make good things happen and to make the community better for the future is the community of Stafford , population 1,042. And I’d like to recognize the efforts by this community, the Stafford residents, with the Building Better Communities Award. They made the effort to preserve their town for another generation.
Rural communities across our State have been hit hard by the economic downturn over the last few years. Many towns have encountered the closing of businesses, Main Street looks a lot less appealing, shortage of health care services, and a younger generation is leaving home in search for employment. In light of these challenges, the community leaders of Stafford are taking steps to cure that town's future.
We have a chain of retail stores across our State called Duckwalls. Well two years ago they announced that they were closing 20 of their stores across Kansas, and the residents of Stafford were left to drive more than 20 miles to do their routine shopping. So what happens in a community like Stafford ? The community leaders gathered and they raised the funds to open and operate a new store, a general store on Main Street called Stafford Mercantile.
One of the things that makes this shop unique is it’s owned by the community and it features a lot of Stafford's history, including a 1928 soda fountain and the marble-topped counter. In fact, one local resident, Judy Mayes, brought her mother to that store to have ice cream from the same fountain used at their wedding reception in 1934. The new shop brings back fond memories of the past but also now brings a future for younger folks in Stafford to enjoy a store, a mercantile, and a soda fountain. The mercantile has made it possible, that once again residents to see what can happen when they work together and now they can shop at home.
Another challenge Stafford faced was the likelihood its local hospital would have to close its doors, after more than 50 years of serving that community, due to the pressures of declining population, Medicare reimbursement rates, the difficult financial circumstances most hospitals across Kansas now face. Access to health care services and hospitals is vital to the survival of a community. If you can't access health care in communities across my State, it is one more circumstance that causes the likelihood senior citizens will reluctantly move away to someplace where there is a doctor and a hospital, and young families won’t take the risk of raising their families without access to that health care. But with more than $ 1/2 million in debt, it seemed like, other than closing the hospital, there was no option for Stafford. But rather than throwing in the towel and giving up, the hospital got new leadership, they sought help from the folks in the county, and they worked hard to make ends meet so the hospital doors could remain open and continue that long tradition of serving the residents of Stafford County.
Many rural communities often struggle to add younger generations of residents to their workforce, given the lack of job opportunities. The superintendent of the local school district, Mary Jo Taylor, recognized this challenge in her community, and she decided to do something about it. With the support of the leadership of the community, the citizens, the business community of the town, and the support of local teacher Natalie Clark, the Stafford Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Center was created at Stafford High School in 2003.
The goal of this center is to equip high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors with the training needed to become successful entrepreneurs. Who better to start a business in their hometown than a young person who grew up there, who is now educated and trained and has a desire for entrepreneurship? More likely that person than probably anyone else. By learning what it takes to develop and manage a small business, young people gain those valuable skills that open doors for a wide range of future employment opportunities and, most important, the opportunity to create a business at home.
As part of that learning experience, local store owners hire those students and give them hands-on experience in managing their own business. Those skills are important as those students leave high school and will enable them to create those jobs that the community of Stafford so desperately needs.
These are only a few examples of how the community of Stafford worked together to revitalize their community and pave the way for its future. Carolyn Dunn, the Stafford County Economic Development Director, summed it up this way when she said: ``Stafford is proving that when communities look within themselves for growth, they do have the capability to forge a stronger, more positive future.''
The community of Stafford is a success story. It’s a role model. It demonstrates how teamwork and creative thinking, how caring about the future of your community can make a positive difference for that community and for all of rural America. I am proud to recognize the efforts of Stafford with what we’ve called the Building Better Communities Award. Today, in the United States Senate, I offer my congratulations and gratitude for the kind of leadership and effort among all residents of the community to see that Stafford is a good place to live today and, perhaps even more important, and perhaps even more importantly a great place to live tomorrow.