INMAN – On July 21 and July 22, the Inman-based Kansas Sampler Foundation hosted its first “Rural Tourism: Come and Get” classes, which is an effort to help rural-Kansas towns learn to promote themselves to help keep rural communities viable.

Graduation from the class makes a community eligible for a community page on the Sampler Foundation’s “Rural Kansas: Come And Get It” Web site, Foundation Director Marci Penner said in a press release.

The site is not yet available for public viewing, but the Sampler’s site can be found at www.kansassampler.org. Click on the “Come and Get It” button in the top navigation bar to learn more about the project.

Penner said she is excited to get the classes started.

“There is a great deal to see and do in rural communities if people know how to explore,” she said. “The ‘Rural Kansas: Come and Get It’ Web site will not only tell what there is to see and do in towns of every size, but it will help people know how to explore. Social networking will be used as a tool to help the world ‘get’ or understand rural culture.”

Each class consists of two days of learning.

The first class took place in at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center northeast of Great Bend during the first day and at the Barton Community College computer lab on the second day.

On the first day, Penner and Associate Director WenDee LaPlant taught the students the how to be rural explorers, how to assess a community’s explorer assets and how to involve the community.

Following the classroom instruction, the group then went out in teams on a three-hour field research venture, Penner said in an e-mail interview.

Day two saw Cort Anderson of Belle Plaine teaching basic photography skills, Patsy Terrell of Hutchinson teaching social networking skills and Penner and LaPlant teaching Web site maintenance.

Representatives from Bison, Ellis, Great Bend, Harper, Hoisington, Hudson, Jetmore, Lyons, Kinsley, Stafford and Wilson attended the first class, totaling about 24 people, Penner said.

“The ‘Rural Kansas: Come and Get It’ program is part of a rural tourism initiative to provide rural communities with a collective promotion – in a way we’ll be promoting rural Kansas as an attraction,” she said. “Each town will place their things to see and do in the eight categories of rural culture elements: architecture, art, commerce, cuisine, customs, geography, history and people. They can submit events, as well, and photos. The maintenance is easy so each town can make their own changes as entries need to be updated.”

Funded by a $50,000 grant from the Kansas Department of Commerce Travel and Tourism division, the classes are free and are designed specifically for volunteer-led communities, though any size community may participate, Penner said.

Penner said the students enjoyed the class in Great Bend.

“They all loved the three-hour exploring,” she said. “Each team chose where to go on their explorations. The stories they came back with illustrated that they had understood the explorer concept.”

Penner said getting the series of classes ready was a six-month process in order to adequately devise a plan for the collective promotion and education of the rural communities. An advisory committee made up of a representative from regional tourism organizations and heritage alliances were also involved, she said.

Six more two-day classes are scheduled around the state, Penner said.

The dates are Aug. 18-19 at Lincoln and Salina, Sept. 16-17 in northeast Kansas with an exact location yet to be determined, Sept. 23-24 in Winfield, Sept. 29-30 in Norton and Phillipsburg, Oct. 6-7 in Ulysses, and Oct. 14-15 in Fredonia and Greenbush.

Each class has a 30-person limit.

Penner said the first class went well.

“The classes went great,” she said. “These communities have now ‘graduated’ and can start to populate the Web site after they conduct research in their towns. The site address will be promoted after the October classes.”

Penner said the Great Bend Convention and Visitors Bureau helped make some of the arrangements for the first class.

“The Kansas Sampler Foundation developed the concept and how to put it into place and makes the class arrangements,” she said.

Just like any project, though, there were a few hiccups, Penner said.

“It’s always difficult to teach a class with beginners and people with advanced computer and photography skills, so we’ll work to refine that process,” she said. “The computer firewalls in school settings made things a bit difficult and Internet speed was slow.”

Penner said watching people learn how to keep their towns viable was a thrilling experience.

“It’s really empowering to see small towns understand that this process will work for them and help them tell their story,” she said. “There is a built-in marketing component because of the social networking and Web presence, so this should make an immeasurable difference to small towns.”

In March, the Kansas Department of Commerce Travel and Tourism division announced the launch of a rural tourism initiative called “Explore Rural Kansas” Partnerships.

The partners include the state tourism office, the Kansas Sampler Foundation, and rural tourism and heritage alliances statewide, according to a press release.

State travel director Becky Blake presented the lead organization, the Kansas Sampler Foundation, with a $50,000 note of promise at a recent We Kan! Conference.

The pilot project is designed specifically for the issues and needs of the volunteer-led communities in Kansas, approximately 70 percent of Kansas’ 627 incorporated cities.

“The project is based on the concept that if a person sees Kansas through Explorer eyes, then every community has something to offer,” Penner said. “An explorer might be defined as a person that craves understanding rural culture by creating their own experience with the locals. There is a particular audience that loves viewing communities that are going about their daily lives. The towns aren’t staging anything but just being themselves. Stepping in to that real-life drama can be very tantalizing and rewarding.”

The Partnership is to design three classes for rural community leaders that will teach the explorer concept and explorer community assessment, use technology in telling the rural story, and involve the community.

“This initiative should serve Kansas well,” Blake said in the press release. “We are excited to work with the Partnership in inviting the Explorer audience to get to know our rural communities.”

For more information contact the Kansas Sampler Foundation at marci@kansassampler.org or 620-585-2374.

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