Kansas Profile – Now That’s Rural: Carolyn Dunn, rural grocery

By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University 

“Nothing changes if nothing changes.”

That quote was cited by K-State sportswriter D. Scott Fritchen in an article about a young ballplayer who used the transfer portal and became an impact player at her new school. The young player posted that quote on her mirror to remind herself that sometimes we have to make a change if we are to better our situation.

Is this true for communities as well? Today we’ll meet another woman who has been a leading force for positive change in her community.

Carolyn Dunn is president of the Stafford County Port Authority and past director of economic development in Stafford County. She has seen change firsthand.

Dunn grew up on a farm near the rural community of Ottawa, population 12,625 people. Now, that’s rural. She studied agricultural economics at K-State and worked in Washington, D.C. before meeting and marrying Brian Dunn and moving back to his farm in Stafford County, Kansas.

By 2011, she was the mother of three boys and serving on the local school board. “We were talking about declining enrollments,” Dunn said. “I commented that we didn’t even have an economic development program in the county and we need one.”

She was also consulting on a Kansas Farm Bureau project to assist three other rural communities in the state. “I asked myself, `Why am I working on these other towns when we need this here?’”  Dunn said.

Stafford County Farm Bureau approached the county commissioners and pledged to commit funds if the county would create a full-time economic development director position. They did so. Dunn took the job.

In 2019, a crisis hit the Stafford County community of St. John: Dillons closed the only grocery store in town. “The immediate thought was, we need somebody else to come in and run that (same) store,” Dunn said. The city established a committee of citizens to consider the matter.

“To their credit, the committee stepped back to look at the big picture,” Dunn said. More alternatives were considered. An outside consultant provided input.

A study concluded that rather than reopening the cramped store downtown, a new, more spacious highway location would be more successful.  After all, nothing changes if nothing changes.

Ultimately, Stafford County Economic Development built a new building near the highway and rented the space to White’s Foodliner, which operates the grocery store today. Space is also rented to Stafford County Drug, which operates a pharmacy.

“We needed more space to sell more things, especially those things that the consumer wants today, such as a deli,” Dunn said. Fuel pumps were also added, including ethanol pumps with support from Kansas Corn Commission.

“This was a $3.8 million project,” Dunn said. Talk about a heavy lift.

“Fourteen different sources of financing went into the project, including loans and grants,” she said. “We used a tax increment financing district so the city didn’t have to raise taxes to do this.”

“The president of the economic development board at the time was a 26-year-old young professional,” Dunn said. “As he was signing these two million dollar loan documents, I felt proud that he was stepping into this leadership role at such a young age.”

The store is doing well, but that is not the only accomplishment in Dunn’s eyes.

“The grocery store is important, and it could be a template for other rural communities,” she said. “The schools say you can’t recruit teachers without a store in town, for example, but I think it goes deeper than that. (Accomplishing this project) shifted our mentality. It told us that we could do bigger, harder things.”

For more information, see www.staffordecodevo.com.

Nothing changes if nothing changes. We commend Carolyn Dunn of Stafford County Economic Development for making a difference with visionary economic development in her county. I’m glad to see she is an agent of change.

And there’s more. Housing was another huge issue that her office tackled. Now 10 new affordable, energy-efficient houses have been built in Stafford County. We’ll learn about that next week.

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