PITTSBURG — Live Well Crawford County hosted its Annual Social event Wednesday at Memorial Auditorium, reviewing the organization’s achievements in 2019, discussing its plans for the upcoming year, and featuring a keynote speech by Kansas Secretary of Commerce David Toland.

Live Well is a local group that largely operates through the efforts of volunteers, with the mission to “promote healthy lifestyle choices ​through education, motivation, and support for all generations,” according to its website.

“2019 was full of action and opportunity and we do not anticipate nor want 2020 to be any different,” said Live Well Executive Director Brad Stroud, before introducing Toland.

In his keynote speech, Toland discussed a wide range of issues impacting both southeast Kansas and the state as a whole.

“Brad asked me to come and talk about the Kelly administration and what we’re doing as it relates to quality of life and what that means for communities like Crawford County,” Toland said. “At the most basic level, the governor’s vision is that we will have a healthy, vibrant state that’s growing and that we do it in a way where we’re planning for the future, where we’re thinking about the next generation.”

Toland discussed some of the challenges to overcome in achieving that vision.

“In southeast Kansas, there’s nearly 5,000 vacant jobs right now,” he said. “I talked about workforce development. This is about a lot of things, you know, recruiting folks, recruiting people in, making sure that we have the right alignment of training with what employers need, and growing knowledge jobs. So particularly with bachelor’s degree holders, how do we have them be part of the knowledge economy?”

The day before Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly announced a compromise proposal with Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning (R-Overland Park) for Medicaid expansion, Toland also said taking action to increase access to the federally funded healthcare program for low-income people was an important priority.

“I don’t have the figures on Crawford County but I can still recite them for Allen County,” said Toland, who formerly served as executive director for the group Thrive Allen County. “Medicaid expansion would mean an additional $1.3 million for Allen County Regional Hospital. That’s a lot of money when you’re a 25 bed critical access hospital.”

Toland additionally talked about some other things going on locally that have attracted statewide attention, such as the Block22 project to renovate historic buildings in downtown Pittsburg and turn them into a mixed use development including commercial, student housing and community event space.

“What else can Live Well do? Work on the power of place,” Toland said. “So this is about trails, this is about parks, this is also about places like Block22, which is an amazing example of what you can do as a community when you collaborate.”

Following his speech, Toland took questions from the audience, including one about the prevalence of “food deserts” in Kansas. While food deserts — areas lacking easy access to fresh, healthy food — may often be thought of as mostly occurring in low-income urban areas, they are also common in rural areas with populations too small to support grocery stores.

The food desert problem is “a tough nut to crack” Toland said. One successful Live Well project in 2019, however — the establishment of a community garden in Arma — offers a potential solution.

“We had a really great year in Arma,” said Matt O’Malley, community liaison for Live Well.

Other highlights of Live Well’s achievements in 2019 included the awarding of $370,000 in grants to a wide variety of projects and organizations, collaboration with Pittsburg State University engineering students to design a first-of-its-kind pedicab that can accommodate a disabled passenger without having to remove them from a wheelchair, and the creation of a new Addiction Prevention Task Force.