In the original Fast 50 list, we didn’t mention how Ron Kitchens got into economic development in the first place. But at the lunch event in Chicago he shared how personal this work is for him. “I grew up poor,” he said. “I was in the free lunch program my whole life.”
Kitchens saw firsthand the lack of job opportunities in his hometown of Ozark, Missouri. Since there was nothing to keep young people in the area after high school or college, he decided to do something about it and ran for city council when he was only 20. He turned 21 by the time he was elected. One of the insights he gained is that public money can only do so much. Private dollars can and should play a significant role in solving social problems.
Take Kalamazoo Promise, which is Southwest Michigan First’s best-known program. Like a lot of towns, Kalamazoo had a struggling school system – ten years of double-digit declines in enrollment, says Kitchens. But with the help of anonymous donors, the group created a college scholarship program that communities around the country are adopting. The amount varies depending on how many years a child attends public school. Kindergarden through 12th grade earns a full ride, 100 percent of in-state tuition covered; ninth through 12th grades earns a scholarship for 65 percent. Some colleges are pitching in as well, offering free room and board to Kalamazoo Promise scholars.
The results? Enrollment in the public schools is up by 1,000 students. New residents are moving to town. Housing prices, which had been down 10 percent, are climbing. New homes are going up. Before 60 percent of young African-American women were going to college. Now 94 percent are. “They get an education and raise the tide for the entire community,” says Kitchens.
Southwest Michigan First also wants to retain some of that college talent. The group approached companies about offering internships and bonus scholarships – $5,000 at the end of the summer if a student does a good job. So far more than two dozen companies have signed on. “We want these kids to think about working in our community first,” says Kitchens. “We looked around and no one had a benchmark saying you should retain 30 percent of college students, but maybe they should.”