We met with Jonathan Goering and Rachel Moore from the health, wellness, and economic development non-profit organization Thrive Allen County based in Iola, located in Southeast Kansas. Our conversation below covers how they work with the county and city to push their county’s economic growth forward, how grant writing has improved with using Bludot, and their strategy and optimism for pandemic recovery in a rural county.
Tell me about Thrive Allen County:
Jonathan: We are a health, wellness, and economic development organization that was founded around 2007, we focus on a variety of things such as health, childcare, transportation, quality of place, economic development, housing, and business expansion. The organization has grown from a handful of people to over 20 and shortly should be about 30 as we grow our transportation arm so we’ve had tremendous growth.
Tell me more about your role and how long you’ve been with the organization:
Jonathan: I’ve been with the organization nearly two years and my role as economic development in rural communities is pretty different from in big cities. When people think of economic development, they are thinking of attracting the big businesses. Here we’re really focused on supporting our small local businesses through entrepreneurship to fit the needs of our community best and engaging the local college and high school students. We focus on attracting businesses that people want to frequent, local events that create experiences that are unique, and we’re working on housing every day.
Rachel: I have been here since the middle of December, my role is to write grants that support our communities. I tell the story from the data so storytelling is a big part of what I do. I focus on sharing those stories by finding out as many details of our economy and community so that I can make our grant proposals stand out.
So how long has Thrive Allen County had an economic development team?
Jonathan: So it started as a health and wellness organization to help Allen County, through a grant the organization was able to launch and tackle those issues. Our founder and CEO had a background in Economic Development so in 2013 they saw a need as no one else was really focused on it so Thrive stepped up to take it on and it ties into health and wellness. He has since gone on to lead economic development at the state level, and Thrive has continued to lead economic development efforts countywide.
What initiatives since you’ve been with the org have been successful during covid recovery?
Jonathan: I’ve never worked in Economic Development outside of a pandemic, so we weren’t able to go out to the community and meet with business owners one on one so I felt like it was really hard to miss out. Thrive has administered many grants throughout the county to businesses which has been a benefit to businesses. We’ve been focused on finding funding outside of covid relief, such as USDA or a state grant so that funding can be more sustainable if they happen to not qualify for the next round. We also help with succession planning, marketing, and connecting them to our experts.
How do you collaborate with the County and/or other government organizations?
Jonathan: We work closely with the county and the county commission and the people who head up the various departments at the courthouse. We’re at the county commission meetings weekly and also with Iola. Our community development teams collaborate with all the cities and towns in the county so we know what’s going on and usually one thing leads to another and we’re able to collaborate on different grants.
How did Bludot come into the picture and why was now the right time to start using it?
Jonathan: We were connected through Janet McRae in Miami County who is an Economic Development superstar who raved about Bludot to us. We like to be a forward thinking organization piloting new technology so we decided it was time to jump on board as well about six months ago. It’s been very useful by organizing our communication – such as how we did with our labor study when we shared that information with our businesses. We were able to use data within the platform to know our small, medium, and large businesses. It was so helpful to see who was reading our emails and who we needed to target again.
What features do you find the most helpful in Bludot?
Jonathan: The fact that we have a platform that contains all our business contacts and then we’re able to organize them further from there to really reach any combination of business contacts. We never had anything like this so it saves a lot of time and is also so much more reliable than us internally remembering to email everyone. We also love that we’re able to see if users are reading our emails and keeping one central source of businesses.
With using Bludot and the business data we provide, how does this impact your grant writing?
Rachel: I can’t tell a compelling story without facts, so the more data I have, the better I can tell a story that convinces people that we’re worth investing in. So being able to look to Bludot to find all our businesses since I don’t live in Allen County. Using Bludot to have business data & and the map feature helps me paint the picture and understand what the county has, what we don’t have, and see potential synergy.
What initiatives are you working on in the upcoming year?
Jonathan: Housing is the big project I never see ending. We’re working on building an entrepreneurial ecosystem so that people feel comfortable and excited to start businesses here. Another one we’re focusing on is how we can help Iola’s central square attract more businesses to fill up the vacant buildings to make the square more vibrant. We’re also helping our local businesses to make them healthy places to work. We're constantly looking to see how we can get people here – to attract them to our area to stay. Similar to other rural areas, we are trying to fight the population decline.
Do you have any advice for other organizations and rural counties?
Jonathan: I would encourage any rural county to see if Bludot can help because we have such limited resources and this has helped us stay organized. Limited budgets and staff make it feel like you take one step forward and two steps back, so leveraging data has been helpful to the work we’re doing. It’s one day at a time and a lot of patience, endurance, and positivity to do the work we’re doing in rural communities. They are unique and fun places that have a lot of bootstrapped people getting creative to make their home better day after day.