TOPEKA –  Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of Commerce David Toland today announced significant changes to the Rural Opportunity Zones (ROZ) program that could increase participation in student loan repayments for people moving to rural Kansas counties.

Individuals who earn an associate degree or higher and move to a designated ROZ county they haven’t lived in for the preceding two years are eligible to have up to $15,000 in student loan debt repaid. Previously, individuals had to live elsewhere for the preceding five years to be eligible.

Commerce also clarified the language describing a student’s permanent residence. Rural residents who occupied a dorm room or apartment during college and kept their permanent address on their driver’s license as their parents’ residence, for example, no longer would be denied eligibility in the program when they returned to their home community following graduation.

“Kansas is ranked one of the top states in the nation for higher education, but then loses too many graduates who pursue career opportunities in other states,” Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of Commerce David Toland said . “Ensuring more students can utilize the Student Loan Repayment Program is critical to keeping and bringing our young talent back to their rural communities. These updates will make Kansas a more financially attractive option for graduates.”

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.

Ensuring that there is a clear understanding of the revised regulations will help increase the number of eligible educated students that rural communities can court. An expanded pool of eligible sponsors for the program now includes employers, foundations, cities, chambers of commerce, Main Street organizations and other community or economic development groups that can utilize the incentive to recruit new workers to rural communities.

“We want to be able to incentivize these highly trained individuals to stay in our rural communities after they complete their training or education,” Kansas Office of Rural Prosperity Director Trisha Purdon said . “With so many students required to complete internships as part of their education, extending ROZ eligibility to include professional practicum experiences will help provide them with long-term employment opportunities in Kansas.”

The program will continue to offer a 100 percent state income tax credit if the eligible participant has not lived in Kansas or received Kansas-based income for the preceding five years.

The program application period is open annually from January 1 to September 30. To apply for student loan repayment assistance or to learn more about eligibility for the program, visit the ROZ website here.

A virtual webinar to explain the program changes will be at 1:00 p.m. Thursday, April 25. Potential applicants, sponsors, schools, cities, counties, foundations, economic development organizations and other employers recruiting workforce are encouraged to attend. 

Registration for the webinar is required. To register, click here.    

By Beccy Tanner

For many Kansans, the Christmas holiday season begins first with a visit to the Delp Christmas Tree Farm in St. John.

It’s tradition and for good reason:

The Delp Christmas Tree Farm is the oldest continuously operating commercial Christmas tree farm in Kansas. Cecil and Ruby Delp started the farm in 1959 and were founding members of the Kansas State Christmas Tree Growers Association.

Decades later, one of the Delp’s sons, Tony and his wife, Linda, returned to St. John to help with the farm. And now, Joel and Sarah Delp and their children help – representing the second, third and fourth generations of the Delp family to help with the farm.

Go now, and there are Christmas carols playing nonstop on a sound system.

The scent of fresh-cut trees, swags and wreaths hangs in the air.

Inside the main office is a fireplace and a help-yourself area with peanuts, candy canes and hot apple cider. Outside are rows and rows of trees where generations of families have come to select Christmas trees.

In the beginning, it was small-town life that first drew the Delps to Stafford County.

Cecil and Ruby moved to St. John in 1946. Cecil was originally from the St. John area. His parents did some farming south of St. John, near the Antrim community. Ruby, although she was born in Arkansas, grew up near Guthrie, Okla. The two met in Oklahoma.

Tony and Linda were the next generation to move back.

“We moved back to St. John so we could be closer to family and also a smaller, rural community where we could raise our family and have the advantages of a smaller school and the opportunity to work out on a farm,” Tony Delp said.

How the farm began

The idea of a Christmas tree farm began with his father’s cousins, who would talk of harvesting 40,000 to 60,000 trees grown in natural habit for sale at Christmas in Detroit and Chicago. Also, Cecil Delp’s two brothers both operated fruit orchards in Yakima Valley, Wash.

“Dad always liked to try different things,” Tony said. “He never liked to do like everybody else. So, he took trips and looked at nurseries and trees. He worked with Kansas State University with the state forester.”

By the 1960s and 1970s, the Delp Tree Farm in St. John was a large operation. During the summers, high school and college students would often help with the farm labor.

When it was the first Christmas Tree farm in Kansas, it wasn’t unusual to see car after car lined up along US-281, waiting for the chance to pull in and select a tree.

Travel the surrounding highways then – especially after Thanksgiving — and it was a common site to see station wagons and pickups with Christmas trees tied securely on top or in back.

The Christmas tree farm heyday for the Delps and other tree operators was during the 1970s and 1980s, when there were 150 tree farms across the state. Now there are closer to 30.

Pre-lighted artificial trees have grown in popularity, Delp said, but he has seen their popularity peak and decline over time. Also, there are more trees available at local grocery stores and at organizations that set up lots in cities.

Cecil Delp was well past 50 when he planted 17,500 evergreen trees using his Fordson tractor, sons Phil and Tony and a planter he borrowed from the local Soil Conservation Service.

Ten acres were set aside for a 4-H project for Phil and Tony.

For decades, Ruby Delp taught first grade to students at St. John Elementary School. Then, in the early 1970s, Ruby and Cecil built a combination tree office and pre-school on the farm. The center of the office included the huge fireplace where customers could go to get warm after tromping through rows and rows of trees to select a Christmas tree. Cecil and Ruby both died in 1997 after 65 years of marriage.

Joel Delp has also experimented with various fruit trees including growing some paw paws. The paw paw trees are normally grown only in thick woodlands, usually close to streams in eastern Kansas, as far west as Butler County. And so, it is rare and exceptional the trees are beginning to thrive on the sandy soils of Stafford County.

Still, it is the Christmas trees that remain popular.

“We couldn’t have a better customer base than the people who come for the Christmas trees,” Tony said. “Most of them are happy, pleasant, and easy to talk to and get along with. It’s fun to see them each year.”

It’s all about family for the Delps.

Linda Delp – according to Tony – is an expert bowmaker and has literally created and tied thousands of bows. She also runs the counter and keeps the office going.

For the Delps, Christmas is their family legacy.

“We care about the community,” Tony said. ““For our family, Christmas begins with Christ and then, it’s about spending time with each other.”

An article came out yesterday written by Mike Courson of the Great Bend Post. Mike’s a great guy from what little interaction I’ve had with him. The article was unfortunately titled “Stafford Eco Devo looking to Enhance Gateway to Quivira.” Kind of a touchy subject right now right? So here’s the back ground of how this article came about. 2 weeks ago I pretaped my monthly radio show that airs the third Thursday of every month. The radio show is a great way to get the word out about Stafford County Economic Development projects and raise awareness about issues the county is dealing with. I pretaped it as I was going to be at the Kansas Housing Conference. Mike created an article based on my pretapped radio program. I did not know he was going to write it. He has written articles based on the radio show before so it doesn’t suprise me. You can hear the full taping here:

We have been developing a program with Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission (KCAIC) that draws people together. It’s a placemaking program that has grant funds attached to it. In the development of the ideas we came up with a plan to tap into the potential tourism market that Quivira attracts. The numbers of tourists that come into the county because of Quivira is really unknown but there are seasonal tourists that come to hunt, fish, bird watch, or to see the monarch butterfly migration. The City of Stafford is considered the Gateway to Quivira and we wanted to play on this monicor to develop a place in the downtown area of Stafford. The place includes a band shell, mural, benches, and additional beautification of the downtown area. Some of these things incorporated animals like cranes and butterflys. The place will be used for Octoberfest and any other events that Stafford comes up with to draw people into the community to shop at local businesses.

The past week I’ve been a part of a group that has been discussing the very important water issue that threatens the local economy. The Rattlesnake Creek water rights issue could be catastrophic to our communities. That’s why Carolyn Dunn has been putting together a letter of 35 signatories from 4 different counties to submit to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to stop what they want to do in diverting water. I myself am a signatory and also helped in securing a number of the signatures in several of the counties. Our office is against what’s happening and working to make sure that what they are planning doesn’t come to fruition.

The KCAIC placemaking project is not connected in any way to Quivira. It does not help Quivira in anyway. It helps Stafford to develop a space they can use for events, something they had already in the works. Something that will help their businesses make money. I do stand by the article from Mike and the Great Bend Post because it’s not connected in anyway to the water issue. It’s an economic development project for Stafford. The timing of the article is aweful and the name of the project will be changed soon before the project gets off the ground. The project will be really good for Stafford and we are excited to see the event space when it’s done.

Here’s the Great Bend Post Article:

Working for you and not against you,

Ryan Russell

Executive Director

Stafford County Economic Development

For updates on Stafford County housing, childcare, the Port Authority and more.

This is the audio from our monthly radio show: Focus on Stafford County. This show aired live at 11:30 AM CT on Thursday, January 26, 2023. Kathleen talks about her plans to step down as executive director later this year and that the organization is currently hiring for her replacement. She also gave updates on other activities including housing, childcare, etc.

On Kansas’ 160th anniversary of statehood, we wanted to share a Kansas Day essay written by Executive Director Carolyn Dunn for the 150th anniversary.

The community of St. John is seeking artist’s proposals to bring life, energy and something unique to St. John in a way that tells about the founding of the town.