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Now That's Rural: Lea Ann Seiler, Hodgeman County
By: Ron Wilson, Kansas State University - 09/13/2021

Most large businesses have a CEO -- chief executive officer. Some have a COO -- chief operating officer -- or a CFO -- chief financial officer.

Today we'll meet a person who describes herself as a CRO. That stands for Chief Remover of Obstacles. Her work has successfully removed obstacles for businesses in her rural county of Kansas.

Lea Ann Seiler is Hodgeman County economic development director. She describes herself as CRO -- Chief Remover of Obstacles.

Lea Ann grew up near Manhattan, attended Riley County High School and then K-State where she met and married her husband Gary. Gary became the ag teacher in Hodgeman County and she became economic development director in 2008.

Why does she use the term Chief Remover of Obstacles? "At a meeting, someone complained that they ran into a fresh obstacle for every business idea they had suggested in their community," she said. "First it was zoning and then it was permitting and then it was financing."

Lea Ann realized that a key part of her role as economic development director was removing obstacles so that her businesses and ruralpreneurs could move forward.

Some obstacles were simple. One person was looking for a building to rent for their business and had been asking around for a year. "We just walked upstairs to the appraiser's office and requested public records," Lea Ann said.

In another case, someone wanted to be a vendor at farmer's market but didn't know how to get a sales tax id. "We opened up my computer, completed the application, and printed their number out right then," Lea Ann said.

Other things take longer to address, such as developing a business plan, pricing a product correctly, or mastering technology. "I remember when two of our restaurants didn't accept credit cards and were losing business because of it," Lea Ann said. "We held meetings with card machine vendors and helped them connect. Now I provide free square card readers to small businesses and farmers market vendors."

Hodgeman County has strategically targeted particular development opportunities. These include natural resource tourism, agricultural diversification, area spending capture, retiring boomers, outbound commuters or those working from home, growth-oriented entrepreneurs, and economic diversification through new resident attraction.

"Lots of good things are happening in Hodgeman County," Lea Ann said. "A new rural communications company has opened in Jetmore. Hanston now has fiber to the premise. The city of Jetmore is passing a Main Street RHID for upper-level housing development. We're embarking on an infill housing project. The Hanston library just received a wonderful grant for outside amenities and the Jetmore downtown farmers market is a new KDHE farmers market senior voucher location. A new truck stop at (highways) 156 and 283 is under construction and highway 156 will be getting much-needed shoulders."

Local furniture artisan Zach Schaffer is building a new shop, and another business will be opening in his former building. "We're partnering with Blue Cross Blue Shield and NXSTG in a super cool new technology for health and vitality project," Lea Ann said.

There are two towns in Hodgeman County, Jetmore and Hanston. Lea Ann's office is at the county seat in Jetmore. "I live in the smaller one which is Hanston, but spend most of my waking hours at the larger one, which is Jetmore," she said. Jetmore has a population of 867. Hanston is a rural community of 206 people. Now, that's rural.

Sixteen new kids have moved to Hanston since May. "We are seeing a renewed interest in rural, and additional people moving, or wanting to move, to our community," Lea Ann said. "There is a renewed sense of urgency in making sure we act on this opportunity," she said.

For more information, go to www.hodgemancountyks.com.

Some organizations have a CEO, CFO, or COO. Hodgeman County is fortunate to have a CRO who serves as a chief remover of obstacles for businesses. We commend Lea Ann Seiler for making a difference with her work, which helps local entrepreneurs move their enterprises forward through the obstacle course of operating a business.


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