Resilience, daring to be different brings Greensburg back from the edge

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June 23, 2015 - 12:00 AM

Eight years out from a massive tornado, Greensburg is an architect’s dream come true.
In a way it’s like a virtual SimCity, the video game with contrived communities. Everything seems laid out in cookie-cutter fashion with nary a dilapidated building or cracked sidewalk. The town radiates out from its central business district. Everything is within easy walking distance.
I was there late last week for a two-day retreat for the board of the Kansas Humanities Council. A goal of the Council is to foster discussion between communities, generations and interest groups. Tonight’s program about World War I aviators, for example, is sponsored by KHC. It starts at 7 p.m. at the public library’s meeting room.
Seeing how Greensburg has come back from being practically wiped off the map — 95 percent of the town was destroyed — was a lesson not only on the resilience of people, but also on how thinking outside the box has been critical to its resurgence.
Before the EF-5 tornado on May 4, 2007, Greensburg was a sleepy little town of about 1,400 out in western Kansas. It’s a straight shot on Highway 54, about four hours west of Iola.
Today, Greensburg’s population is about 900.
So yes, the tornado caused several families to uproot.
It’s important to note, however, that its demographics of today are comprised of more younger families than before, especially when compared to other communities of similar size.
Greensburg can attribute its youthful factor to its decision to “go green” when rebuilding. That mentality attracts youth.
Greensburg’s former claim to fame is it has the world’s largest hand-dug well.
Yes, the well is still there. In fact, even better than before, says Jay Newton, who at 75 is serving a second stint as the city’s interim administrator.
“Today, the well brings in about $400,000 in revenue. Way, way exceeding anything before,” Newton said. 
The well is now encapsulated in an attractive building that, like every other city structure, sports solar panels and other technology that use the wind and sun to generate power.
Greensburg’s buildings are LEED platinum certified, meaning they meet the highest standards of efficiency according to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
“Used to be people came to see the well,” said Stacy Barnes, who serves as director of the Big Well Museum, as well as tourism director for the city. “Today, they come to see our architecture.”
Downtown’s main street is banked on both sides with state-of-the-art buildings that house a smattering of restaurants, boutiques, banks, a city center, library, senior center, arts center, and other municipal buildings.
Its Liberty Theater has risen like a phoenix. The $3.5 million theater opened six weeks ago and sports the largest movie screen between Wichita and Denver. The theater also serves as a performing arts center for area students and has a lobby perfect for social receptions.

AFTER THE tornado, Greensburg was on the precipice between extinction and survival.
For several months it was a ghost town before public services began to come back online. Townsfolk and those there to help, including the National Guard and others trained to assist in emergencies, lived in tents and other temporary structures while they tried to make some semblance of normality out of the newly created wasteland. A drive through town today shows a few streets on the east end with towering trees, otherwise most yards are dotted with saplings. The sky never looked bigger.
The attractive streetscape downtown includes young saplings planted along sidewalks and massive pottings of Russian sage.
To a one, the townsfolk all exhibited a pioneer spirit, willing to stare down adversity. In discussions with city leaders, they said it soon became obvious they would choose not only to rebuild, but to make Greensburg better than ever.

ON STAFF with the Humanities Council is Murl Riedel, a young man whose job is to direct grants to help fund projects and programs. (The Buster Keaton Celebration is a frequent recipient.)
In his travels across the state to towns big and small, Murl said he can quickly identify successful communities from those slowly fading into oblivion.
“It takes only four or five people with a vision to make the needed difference,” he said.
Not an army. Just a handful of people with a vision for a better tomorrow and the willingness to work for it.
I dared ask if there were any such communities in southeast Kansas.
He broke into a big smile and patted my hand.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Iola and Humboldt are happening places.”

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