Holyrood, Kan., population 447, is the type of small rural community the Big Rural Brainstorm wants to include. (Eric Durban/Harvest Public Media)
The 2010 U.S. Census found fewer Americans living in rural communities than ever before. Some Kansans are hoping to turn things around with a “Big Rural Brainstorm,” set for Feb. 3 and 4 in Newton, Kansas.
Marci Penner, organizer of the Big Rural Brainstorm, said the brainstorm idea was borne out of a desire to see rural issues solved at the grass-roots level. Penner is also the director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, a foundation dedicated to sustaining rural culture.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been such an urgency about the sustainability of rural communities,” Penner said.
The first-of-its-kind event is open to anyone interested in rural communities, Penner said. Don't expect a typical conference, she warned.
“It’s going to be energetic, it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be fast paced, it’s going to cover lots of topics,” Penner said.
The structure will largely be driven by those attending. Sessions could focus on ideas as diverse as entertainment and education, to developing a model for a rural grocery store.
“We’re not wanting to come up with thoughts that we ask Topeka or Washington to solve,” Penner said. “We’re looking for things that we can do in our communities.”
Penner has her sights set on the 75 percent – the huge number of Kansas communities with fewer than 1,500 people that are volunteer-led.
That includes towns like Goessel, in central Kansas. John Fast, Goessel’s schools superintendent, plans to attend the Brainstorm.
“Especially in towns that are smaller where most of the community leaders are volunteers, we rarely get a chance to network with other folks,” Fast said. “This is a great opportunity to visit with each other and get ideas.”
He says Goessel, a town of less than 600 people, recently formed a community foundation.
“I’m sure that will be talked about -- how community foundations can be established in these towns and rural areas to help support those things that we want to keep alive,” Fast said.
Penner is hoping several hundred will attend. She said that despite the decline in population, passion for rural living is still vibrant in many areas.
“The experts are the people that attend, and those are the voices we want to hear at this particular event,” Penner said.