Southeast Kansas Nonprofit Improves Health, Economy in Allen County


IOLA, Kan. – Ron Riebel worked more than two decades at an automotive-parts manufacturing plant here before the company pulled up stakes and moved to Mexico three years ago.

But Riebel now is back doing full-time maintenance work at the 150,000-square-foot facility for Catalyst Artificial Lift, a Texas firm that manufacturers oil-field pumps. The company purchased the auto parts plant in late July to expand on the small presence it has in nearby Humboldt.

“I love it,” said Riebel, 63, taking a break from repairing one of the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling. “They made my day.”

Catalyst’s decision also represented a big win for a unique economic development partnership led by Thrive Allen County, a nonprofit known more for its annual Mad Bomber walk/run and other health promotion efforts than for negotiating economic incentive packages.

Thrive is taking a leadership role in economic development at the behest of Allen County business and government leaders.

“Health and economic development are not at odds,” said Thrive Executive Director David Toland. “They are inextricably linked.”

For example, the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that unhealthy behaviors such as binge drinking and cigarette smoking are most prevalent among low-income individuals.

The annual community health rankings, compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, also highlight the role social and economic factors play in community health.

For instance, Allen County’s neighbor, Woodson County, ranked last among the 102 counties measured in the latest health rankings. It also had a median household income ($33,221) that was about a third lower than the Kansas statewide average ($48,844).

Boosters have undertaken a region-wide effort to improve the fortunes of southeast Kansas residents through an initiative known as Project 17.

Dr. Glen Cox, chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said economics and health are so intertwined as to be virtually inseparable.

When companies pick a place to do business, he said, they assume they will have a workforce healthy enough to carry out their duties.

Forward-thinking business leaders too, he said, want healthy communities for the executives and workers they move to an area.

Cox grew up in the Linn County town of Mound City, which is about 50 miles northeast of Iola, and still has relatives in southeast Kansas.

“So anything that goes on in southeast Kansas that looks like it is succeeding to the degree that Thrive is,” Cox said, “I find gratifying and hopeful.”

With plans to potentially employ as many as 120 workers within the next five years, business leaders in Iola said Catalyst was the biggest economic development news here since Russell Stover Candies built its plant in the mid-1990s.

Thrive’s involvement in business deals began last year, Toland said.

It was then, he said, that representatives of Iola Industries, a decades-old, volunteer-led industrial development corporation, approached Thrive about taking the lead in promoting business development in the county.

It helped, Toland said, that he has a real estate background.

He once served as an economic development official in the District of Columbia.

After leaving D.C. city government, and before taking the job at Thrive five years ago, the Iola native was also part of a company that developed affordable housing in Washington, D.C.

As a private developer, Toland also has rehabbed two buildings on Iola’s downtown square.

Iola Industries leaders had known for a long time that pitching the community required a professional staff, said board member John Masterson, president of Allen Community College, which has campuses in Iola and Burlingame.

But it wasn’t Toland’s real estate background that interested business leaders, he said.

Through Thrive, Masterson said, Toland had succeeded in convincing the area’s ultra-competitive towns to work together on improving the health of the region’s residents.

“I guess we all, with Iola Industries, trusted that same kind of savvy to be able to expand the economic well-being of the community,” Masterson said.

“It has a direct connection to the physical health, the mental health,” he said. “People have jobs, they are able to take better care of themselves, they have less stress, so it’s a very good tie-in, I think.”

Along with Thrive and Iola Industries, the newly formed Economic Development Advisory Committee includes city and county officials.

In the case of Catalyst, Toland said, Iola beat out the company’s hometown of Gainesville, Texas, for the expansion by offering $100,000 in incentives. And most of that package, Toland said, is in the form of in-kind help from the city to upgrade electrical service and make other building improvements.

With the Catalyst deal, Toland said, the committee has approximately $13.3 million of projects in the development pipeline.

The other projects include plans for 28 new homes, targeted toward the hourly-wage employees in the county, and an assisted-living facility. Iola would be home to both projects.

For Toland, the tie between Thrive’s economic development and health missions involves more than just adding jobs in the county.

He wants to breathe new life into the county by encouraging people to live and work in Iola.

Toland has already seen what a steady paycheck and employer-based health insurance have done for Riebel.

Even before his new job, Riebel had been doing some contract work at the old parts plant, so Toland saw him intermittently while the building was on the market.

“I can’t even begin to describe the difference in Ron’s demeanor today versus a year ago,” Toland said. “He is a new man.”



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