E-community program aims to build local economies

Editor?s note: Marion and Hillsboro are among 24 entities in Kansas that have been accepted into the NetWork Kansas E-community program. This article reviews the start and purpose of this organzation.

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E =mc2. That was the famous equation proposed by Albert Einstein. While the E in that equation stood for energy, today?s society has other important E words, such as entrepreneurs.

In fact, we might say that E equals Entrepreneurship. There is increasing appreciation of the importance of entrepreneurship in growing our economies and communities.

Now, an organization named NetWork Kansas has created a system for supporting and enhancing entrepreneurship in communities across the state.

Steve Radley is director of the Kansas Center for Entrepre?neurship, which operates under the name of NetWork Kansas. Radley is a native of Wichita who grew up in Oklahoma and has degrees from Wichita State and OU.

He began his private-sector career with a business startup technology company in Wichita, where he helped the founding entrepreneur grow the business from a $6 million company to more than $175 million. Radley co-owned two other businesses after that.

Legislators pass act

In 2004, the state legislature passed the Kansas Economic Growth Act, which, among other things, created the Kansas Center for Entrepreneurship. Radley became the center?s first director in 2005.

That organization, now known as NetWork Kansas, is intended to assist entrepreneurs in the state. It opened with a call center and Website to provide prospective business startups with information and referrals to partnering organizations. This initiative began with 250 partnering organizations in March 2006.

Now NetWork Kansas has some 470 partnering organizations. In summer 2006, NetWork Kansas held 18 town hall meetings in 45 days around the state, seeking input on how to do more to assist entrepreneurs.

One outcome of this process was that NetWork Kansas launched a Start-up Kansas fund to assist small business growth. This is a statewide matching loan fund for entrepreneurial projects submitted through partnering organizations.

?As I wrote the town hall meeting report, I visualized a community with three bridges: Expertise, Economics, and Education,? Radley said. ?Each bridge had those resources moving both ways. We need to truly empower these communities with assets and decisionmaking.?

What is E-community?

This led to the creation of what NetWork Kansas calls E-Communities. A NetWork Kansas E-Community is a partnership that allows a town, a cluster of towns, or an entire county to raise seed money for local entrepreneurs through donations from individuals or businesses within the community.

These funds are raised using Kansas Entrepreneurship Tax Credit allocations and are then distributed in the form of matching loans and grants to new and expanding businesses through a competitive application process administered by a local leadership team.

Essentially, this enables a donor to the entrepreneurship fund to receive a credit on their state income tax. Then the funds are used to grow local businesses.

NetWork Kansas selects five to eight new E-communities each year. This service is intended to reach out to the whole state, not only to the big cities.

Towns involved

Twenty-four E-communities have been selected so far in every region of the state, from Greeley County to Linn County. More than half are county-wide.

The list of individual towns selected includes small- to mid-size communities but does not include Kansas City, Topeka or Wichita.

Altogether, more than $4.5 million has been raised to provide matching loans and grants to local businesses. Based on current loans and grants funded, it is estimated these funds will help generate more than $35 million of investment in rural businesses across Kansas.

Joining the E-community program when it was first launched in 2007 were Anderson County, Cowley County, Rawlins County, Sterling/Alden, Great Bend and Thomas County.

Augusta, Bird City, Chase County, Kiowa County, Linn County and Marion were accepted in 2008.

Finney County, Greeley County, Hillsboro, Inman, Osage County, Pottawatomie County, Salina and Scott County were accepted in 2009.

Coffeyville, Ford County, McPherson County and Phillips County came on board in 2010.

?Our goal is to help communities grow their own money and make their own decisions,? Radley said.

For more information, go to networkkansas.com.

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