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Program Training Youth Entrepreneurs

Dickinson County CEO Gives High School Students Real-Life Learning Experiences, Business Knowledge

A unique program is helping to cultivate and support the next generation of business owners and leaders in one North Central Kansas county. Dickinson County CEO (Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities) is an intensive year-long course. It pairs high school students with entrepreneur mentors to give them real-world experience in starting a business.

Students presented their business concepts to Dickinson County CEO Board Members to share their visions and receive feedback. (Courtesy Photo)

The idea for the program came after Kyle Becker, a native of Abilene, Kansas, learned about it from a local entrepreneur. At the time, Becker served on the Board of Education of USD 435. He and others researched and talked to the local schools and the Economic Development Corporation to see if there was interest in starting the first chapter of the program in the state. Dickinson County CEO has now completed four years of the program.

The Dickinson County CEO 2023-2024 class hosted a Rural Roots Live Music Event in Abilene on January 6, 2024. (Courtesy Photo)

While it is not a school program, the course follows the school calendars, and students get credit for the class. The program meets five days a week for 90 minutes before school starts. It never meets in a school but moves to different host sites in various communities and businesses. The distance can create challenges with logistics and time management for students as significant travel time is involved. There are five school districts represented throughout the Dickinson County CEO program.

“It’s a big commitment for the students but very worthwhile,” Becker says. “We do an exit interview with kids at the end of the program. It has been really encouraging to hear the mind shift of some of our students who can recognize the local opportunities that exist after they have been immersed in the program and the communities.”

Partnerships are essential for program success—including local buy-in from businesses and schools, investors, mentors, students, and a program facilitator. The program needed 35 investors to pledge $1,000 annually for three years before it could launch. Fundraising efforts are continual. Many supporters are repeat investors who see the value. Some of these same investors also serve as mentors, a role that is key to student success.

“Mentoring helps the students start to build a network of people they can use in the future as they transition into adulthood, and most of these relationships continue after the class ends,” Becker says.

Prospective students apply in the spring. There were 12 students in the 2023-2024 class. Throughout the year, the students complete three businesses. The first is a badge business that teaches basic business concepts. The class decides as a group on the second business. The precedent so far each year has been a special event such as a 5K race or an evening of entertainment. The most recent class hosted a Rural Roots Live Music Event. Proceeds earned from the first two businesses fund the third, which is each student’s business. Students create a business plan, go through a loan process, operate their own business, and present at a trade show.

“They learn a lot about themselves and life in this class,” Becker says. “They come in as kids that are shy. Their soft skills are not good. By the end of the year, they are confident young adults.”


Project Spotlight: Clay County’s Drug-Free Communities Award Bolstering Impact

Clay County Efforts to Increase Healthy Youth Decision Making Receives Boost with Recent Grant Funding

A commitment to the mission of prevention of youth substance use is incredibly personal to a county that has seen tragedy. A community collaborative effort—Clay Counts Coalition—is working to effect long-term positive change for the good of the community.

“We are focused on kids, but not exclusively kids,” says Lori Martin, who serves as Community Mobilizer for the Clay Counts Coalition. “The kids today are going to become the adult leaders of tomorrow. This initiative is investing in the future of our communities.”

In November, nearly 300 adults attended the first Courageous Conversations Night at the Rex Theatre in Clay Center, Kansas. This is one of many activities supported, in part, through the CDC Drug-Free Communities project awarded in September 2023. (Courtesy Photo, KCLY Radio)

The Clay Counts Coalition has existed in Clay County, Kansas, since 2007. Many local partners and volunteers are involved in its work. Recent grant funding is helping to bolster community impact. The Coalition was awarded a $125,000 grant in September 2023 through the CDC Drug-Free Communities Support Program. It is renewable for up to five years. Clay County Health Department serves as the grant’s fiscal agent, and Martin as the program director. A grant coordinator, Matt Weller, was recently hired. He will help coordinate efforts with the school district. Deb Ohlde, NCRPC’s Assistant Director of Strategic Initiatives, provided grant writing assistance.

“We had been told that the program was highly competitive and that we would likely not get funded on our first try,” Martin says. “We asked Deb not to write the grant completely but to serve as the captain of the team. She did a great job of keeping us on task and schedule. We could have continued to limp along as volunteers, but this funding solidified and amplified our impact in the community. This award has strengthened the structure of the Coalition.”

The Coalition is planning many activities for the next five years of the project. Supporting Clay County YLinK, or Youth Leaders in Kansas, is just one example. The Clay Center Community High School chapter of YLinK hosted a Community Commitment/Courageous Conversations Night in November at the Rex Theatre in Clay Center.

“About 300 adults came out that night,” says Martin, who also serves as YLinK sponsor. “This tells you the level of interest and involvement in the community. It was impactful.”

The evening started with a video—”What We Need You to Know”—created by YLinK members.  A small group of students will continue their advocacy by speaking at special state-level events this spring.

More Courageous Conversations events are planned, building on the success of the first. These events will focus on alcohol and drug education, mental health, and more.

The Coalition received additional funding from the Kansas Suicide Prevention Coalition and Drug Endangered Children in Kansas, which only help to further momentum to address challenges.

“I recently read a quote in an email that I think really captures the essence of what we do—’Creating resiliency by addressing the social needs of our communities,’” says Martin.

This article appeared in the Quarter 1 2024 NCRPC Newsletter.

There are many great things happening in North Central Kansas. Project Spotlight shares stories from communities around the region and how they solved challenges. View more at

NCKCN, CTC Partner to Help Connect Remote Observatory for Research

Dr. Luke Schmidt’s research will benefit from the new remote observatory that NCKCN is helping to connect. (Courtesy Photo)

NCKCN and Cunningham Telephone & Cable (CTC), based in Glen Elder, Kansas, provide high-speed Wireless and Fiber internet to the remote observatory of the North Central Kansas Astronomical Society. North Central Kansas Community Network Co., or NCKCN for short, is an affiliate of the North Central Regional Planning Commission.

The SSC Observatory (SSCO) deploys remotely controlled astronomical instruments to image and study the night-time sky. The SSCO takes advantage of the clear, dark skies in North Central Kansas. It also makes research simpler for Dr. Luke Schmidt of Texas A&M University.

Currently, a typical observing session for Dr. Schmidt involves a 9-hour drive from Texas A&M University to McDonald Observatory, located in the Davis Mountains of West Texas. Once all the telescopes at the SSCO near Beloit are fully operational, an observing session will only require traveling as far as his home office.

“This is one of the more unique projects NCKCN has helped to connect,” says Systems Manager Todd Tuttle. “It will help provide easy access to many hours of observing time.”

This article appeared in the Quarter 1 2024 NCRPC Newsletter.

Big Kansas Road Trip to Feature North Central Kansas Counties

North Central Kansas will take center stage in the Big Kansas Road Trip May 2-5 as visitors explore Ellsworth and Lincoln counties, plus the community of Lucas in Russell County. The Kansas Sampler Foundation organizes the event.

The Big Kansas Road Trip, which started in 2018, is a multi-day event highlighting unique points of interest, museums, attractions, shops, and restaurants. Last year, it covered Jewell, Republic, and Smith counties.

Local organizers have been preparing for several months for this year’s event. The first task was educating communities, local businesses, and organizations on the event and how they can get involved.

“We wanted to give everybody a chance to show off what makes their attraction or community unique,” says Kelly Gourley, Lincoln County Economic Development Foundation Executive Director.

Organizing the ideas into a user-friendly format for visitors to plan their itineraries took time. Volunteers, community stakeholders, local business owners, and nonprofit groups have all been instrumental in preparing for the weekend.

The Kansas Sampler Foundation considers several factors when selecting the host locations each year.

“We look for areas that may have lesser known but awesome attractions that deserve attention,” says Marci Penner, Kansas Sampler Foundation Executive Director. “We look for places with scenic back roads, unusual things to see and do, and friendly people. We are thrilled with the participation of businesses, restaurants, organizations, and attractions, plus the activities added by community members to help share the story of who they are and what they have to offer.”

Locals in the 2024 communities are ready to welcome visitors.

“Ellsworth County is delighted to share the opportunity with Lincoln County and Lucas to showcase all of our amazing attractions, mom-and-pop shops, and the welcoming spirit of our communities,” says Stacie Schmidt, Grow Ellsworth County Executive Director. “We can’t wait to roll out the welcome mat to our visitors.”

For more information or to plan your trip, visit

This article appeared in the Quarter 1 2024 NCRPC Newsletter.

Housing Assessment Tool a Resource for Addressing Community Housing Needs

Technical Assistance Grants Available in Some Areas

image of house and puzzle piecesAlthough specific housing challenges may vary among communities, what remains the same is there are no simple solutions when it comes to addressing those needs.

A good first step is evaluating existing housing stock and determining goals and priorities. If a community is interested in applying for outside funding for a housing project, most funding agencies require some type of a housing study or housing needs assessment.

“I recommend that each community complete or update their Housing Assessment Tool to be ready for funding opportunities,” said Keegan Bailey, NCRPC Housing Director.

Completing a Housing Assessment Tool, also known as the HAT, is required to apply for a Housing Rehabilitation and Demolition Project through the Kansas Department of Commerce Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. The HAT is also useful for other funding programs. It helps communities assess their housing inventory and needs and may eliminate the need to hire a consultant to perform a housing study. A HAT is good for five years unless there are major changes in the community, such as losing or gaining a large employer.

“Although the HAT is a community-led effort, we are ready to work with communities to answer questions and help guide you every step of the way to develop a plan,” Bailey said.

For communities located in the 26-county service area of the Northwest Kansas Economic Innovation Center, Inc., there is now grant funding that can help. The K-State 105 Technical Assistance Grant provides funding for professional services to assist rural communities in developing or updating their HAT. The Innovation Center is a K-State 105 partner. K-State 105 is Kansas State University’s answer to the call for a comprehensive economic growth and advancement solution for Kansas.

The maximum grant amount for technical assistance for each new HAT is $1,500. A local match of $500 is required, which can be cash or in-kind service directly related to the development of the HAT. For communities only needing to update their HAT, the maximum grant amount is $750 for technical assistance with a $250 local match required. To view the Innovation Center service area, visit

“We know that understanding the complexities of housing and the various funding sources available can be overwhelming,” Bailey said. “We are here to be a resource for communities and to help simplify the process as much as possible.”

Funding is also available from the Innovation Center to assist rural communities in creating a Reinvestment Housing Incentive District (RHID) — including the Housing Needs Analysis. More information about RHIDs and the HAT can be found at the Innovation Center website.

For questions about the HAT or to get started, contact NCRPC Housing Director Keegan Bailey at 785-738-2218 or

This article appeared in the Quarter 4 2023 NCRPC Newsletter.

Project Spotlight: Commercial Rehabilitation Project in Lincoln

Project Restores Historic Lincoln Building, Fulfills Community Need for a Fitness Center

image of the Post Rock Fitness location before renovations began

Many of the defining historical features were covered prior to the project in the building located at 113 W. Lincoln Avenue in downtown Lincoln, KS. (Courtesy Photo)

The need for a fitness center had been talked about in the City of Lincoln, Kansas, for several years. A committee was even formed to focus efforts on developing one, but funding challenges hindered progress.

When Kelly Gourley purchased a vacant, historic property in downtown Lincoln in 2019, opening a fitness center was not at the top of her list of ideas for the space. However, her journey to open a business brought the conversations about the need for a fitness center full circle. Today, Gourley owns/operates Post Rock Fitness in addition to serving as Executive Director of Lincoln County Economic Development Foundation.

image of interior of Post Rock Fitness, Lincoln, KS after a large renovation project

Renovations helped bring the building back to new life as a fitness center and were made possible through funding from the owner, awards from the CDBG Commercial Rehabilitation and HEAL programs, and State and Federal Historic Tax Credits. (Courtesy Photo)

Post Rock Fitness opened in August 2022 at 113 West Lincoln Avenue in the newly renovated historic building in downtown Lincoln. The fitness center is membership-based offering walk-in passes, one-week passes, or monthly memberships. Members have access to the facility 19 hours/day, 7 days a week through a mobile app.

The process to bring the vacant building to new life was long and costly. Securing outside funding was critical to success. The City of Lincoln was awarded a $250,000 Commercial Rehabilitation grant in 2020 through the Small Cities Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which is administered by the Kansas Department of Commerce.

Also key in helping Gourley move the project forward was the timely rollout of the Historic Economic Asset Lifeline (HEAL) program, also from Kansas Department of Commerce, and the ability to apply for State and Federal Historic Tax Credits due to the designation of the community’s historic downtown district.

“Although I knew a fitness center was a need in the community, I knew it wasn’t going to be able to support the level of renovations the building required,” Gourley said. “The CDBG program was able to bridge the gap between the cost of renovations and the financing the business could support.”

According to Gourley, the project was not without its challenges.

“Because CDBG is a federal program, there are requirements that local contractors have a hard time meeting. Even more challenging was trying to launch the project right as the cost of construction was skyrocketing after COVID,” Gourley said. “Once the project finally got under construction, it was exciting to see several years’ worth of planning finally coming to life!”

Due to rising costs, the project had to be scaled back from its original scope of work. In addition to roof repairs, improvements mostly focused on the interior such as electrical and plumbing updates along with HVAC, insulating and repairing damaged floors, walls, and ceiling. Gourley has since completed additional front facade improvements.

The NCRPC provided planning assistance, grant writing and project administration for the CDBG Commercial Rehabilitation portion of the project. Other non-funding key partners involved with the project were Bruce McMillian Architects, Manhattan, Kansas; and Wiens & Company Construction Inc., Hutchinson, Kansas.

“I could not have done this without the help of the NCRPC, especially Bri Beck,” Gourley said. “She is a pro and made sure that all of us were always staying on track with the requirements of the CDBG program.”

While restoring a vacant historic building and opening a business were the primary results of this project, perhaps just as important has been enhancing quality of life for residents and bringing the community together – even if it is informally through Wednesday night yoga classes. To learn more about the business, visit

This article appeared in the Quarter 4 2023 NCRPC Newsletter.

There are many great things happening in North Central Kansas. Project Spotlight shares stories from communities around the region and how they solved challenges.
View more at

Kansas Nonprofit Security Grant Program Offers Funding for Security Enhancements

Prepare Now for FY24 Application Cycle

image of security conceptFunding is available for physical security enhancements and other security-related activities for nonprofit organizations at high risk of a terrorist attack. The funding comes from the Kansas Nonprofit Security Grant Programs (NSGP). The program also seeks to integrate the preparedness activities of nonprofit organizations with broader state and local preparedness efforts, such as enhancing the protection of crowded areas.

The Kansas Highway Patrol is the State Administrative Agency for the grant program. While the FY23 projects have already been awarded, eligible nonprofits can begin preparing now to be ready for the FY24 application period.

The facility you are applying for must be completed (not under construction), occupied, and operational by the time of application and located in Kansas. Eligible nonprofits can apply for $150,000 per facility up to three facilities to enhance the security of these working facilities to prepare and protect your soft targets from acts of terrorism.

For more information and to preview application requirements, visit

“We will begin our educational application phase in January with webinars, so make sure you register to place your name on our contact list,” said Lt. Edna Cordner, Grants Manager, Kansas Highway Patrol.

To subscribe directly to NSGP emails, visit Astra is the new online system to sign-up for Kansas NSGP updates. It will also be used for FY24 project submissions when the grant opportunity is released in 2024.

This article appeared in the Quarter 4 2023 NCRPC Newsletter.

High School Seniors Invited to Enter Rural Voices Youth Contest

image of money and graduation capHigh school seniors in North Central Kansas are once again invited to compete for a chance to win $1,000 by submitting an essay or short video in the Rural Voices Youth Contest. The 2023-2024 contest theme is “Rural Kansas…Success Through Innovation.”

Students submitting the top two entries will each receive a cash award of $1,000. The winning entries will also be published on the NCRPC website. The NCRPC has sponsored the contest annually since 2006 in honor of long-time former executive director John Cyr.

Any senior in high school who lives in or attends a school in the 12-county NCRPC service area is eligible to enter.

The deadline to submit an entry is February 1, 2024. Additional information and registration details are available at the contest page.

This article appeared in the Quarter 4 2023 NCRPC Newsletter.


Convenience Store in Wilson Fully Transitioned to New Owner

Loan Programs Assist Women-Owned Business

image of Stop 2 Shop in Wilson, Kansas

A project to purchase the real estate and equipment at Stop 2 Shop located at 2720 Avenue E, Wilson, KS, was completed earlier in 2023. (Courtesy Photo by Keith Gustin)

Stop 2 Shop in Wilson, Kansas, has long been the local source in the community to fuel your day – whether it be with needed gas or diesel, or in the form of food and beverages.

The gas station/convenience store serves local customers from Wilson and the Wilson Lake area as well as travelers on Kansas Highway 232 and Interstate 70. Since 2017 Niki (Whitmer) Mikulecky has operated the business as sole owner/President of NC Convenience Inc. while renting the physical assets from the previous owner. Prior to that, Niki worked for the previous operator for six years.

Earlier this year, NC Convenience Inc. officially purchased the real estate, equipment and fuel inventory. Other than a ribbon cutting ceremony celebrating Niki’s purchase, operations continued as normal ensuring a seamless transition for customers.

The facility has three fuel pumps with two offering highway or E-10 gas and one offering highway or farm diesel. The kitchen features daily specials with lunch and dinner options including pizza, cheese burgers, fried chicken and other fried foods. Customers can enjoy indoor seating or take food “to go.”

In addition to Niki working full-time as owner/manager, the business employs four others in varying capacities.

This project was made possible with investment by the owner as well as funding from First Bank Kansas of Ellsworth, the NCK Business Down Payment Assistance Loan Program and NCRPC Revolving Loan Fund offered through the NCRPC Business Finance Program.

Learn more about the NCRPC Business Finance program. For more information about the business, find it on Facebook.

This article appeared in the Quarter 4 2023 NCRPC Newsletter.

North Central Kansas Regional Relocation Pilot Program Has Positive Local Impacts

Pilot Program Helps 25 Families Stake Roots in Region

image of relocation conceptFinancial incentives offered through the pilot North Central Kansas Regional Relocation Program attracted 38 new residents and assisted in the purchase of 25 homes in the region in the past year.

The pilot program launched August 15, 2022 and concluded in Spring 2023. It was available in Cloud, Ellsworth, Jewell, Lincoln, Mitchell, Ottawa, Republic and Saline counties. The program helped make home ownership more affordable for those relocating to the region by reducing the barriers of down payments and closing costs.

NCRPC administered the program offered by its housing non-profit, NCK Housing Opportunities, Inc. The non-profit serves Cloud, Ellsworth, Jewell, Lincoln, Mitchell, Ottawa, Republic, and Saline counties. An award from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation of Logan, Kansas, assisted in the creation of the loan and grant pool.

“This initiative would not have been possible without the generous assistance from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation and the tremendous support we received from area banks and economic development groups,” Program Manager Keegan Bailey said.

The program offered a combination of a 0% down payment assistance loan of $10,000 and closing cost grant of $2,500 when purchasing a home of $50,000 of greater. In total, it impacted 64 residents living in 25 households. Of the residents who accessed the program, 15 moved from out of state, 26 moved from within North Central Kansas, and 23 moved from elsewhere in Kansas.

To be eligible, home buyers had to relocate to an eligible county in North Central Kansas within 18 months of the request. The primary bank loan also had to be provided by a bank having a physical location in the NCRPC 12-county service area.

“We were encouraged by the program results and positive local impacts in the region,” Bailey said.

Since 2018, the various home ownership loan/grant programs in the region administered by the NCRPC have combined to assist in the purchase of 149 homes with an approximate value of $19.9 million. The previous pilot projects led to the creation of the 2022-2023 NCK Regional Relocation Program.

This article appeared in the Quarter 3 2023 NCRPC Newsletter.