An economic development perspective: How a community rebuild inspires strength and tenacity at home
By Gary Ballew, CEcD, VP, Economic Development
I was recently driving through West Kansas, making my way from Wichita to Dodge City. The why is another story, but what I saw was pretty cool. For those of you who have driven through West Kansas, the landscape can be described as repetitive. I started seeing billboards for the “World’s Largest Hand Dug Well,” which didn’t interest me at first, but after seeing the billboards two more times and another hour of repetitive landscape, I felt a large hole would be a refreshing change of pace.
I stopped in the small town of Greensburg, Kansas- with a population of 740 strong. Making my way to Big Well (the unofficial name for the “World’s Largest Hand Dug Well”) I began to notice that Greensburg, Kansas was really nice. The houses and the municipal buildings were new. There was an art gallery next to the modern museum that housed the Big Well. There was a series of bikes that you could take to ride around Greensburg. If they were electric scooters, I would have been all in.
Not seeing a lot of signs of life in most of the small towns I had seen in West Kansas or East Kansas for that matter, I wondered, with my keen economic development mind, “What the hell happened here?” Well, hell was a close analogy. On May 4, 2007, a massive tornado hit the town and completely destroyed it. It knocked down 95% of the buildings and killed 11 people. The people of Greensburg had a choice – do we take our insurance check to a new community, or do we tough it out and rebuild?
They decided to rebuild their town and do it in a big way. They wanted to show the world that even in the face of adversity, it’s possible to rebuild and create a better future. So, they decided to make Greensburg the greenest town in America. They rebuilt their homes, businesses, and community buildings using sustainable materials and energy-efficient technology. They installed wind turbines and solar panels, and even built a LEED-platinum-certified school. They also created a network of bike paths and encouraged residents to use alternative forms of transportation, no scooters though.
They also integrated a lot of art into the community, a visual representation of the power of their small community and the human spirit. One of the art pieces incorporated a bible verse that is spot on. Isaiah 58:12 – “Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a re-builder of walls and restorer of homes.”
I was floored by the strength of this community. I thought about our own challenges as we recover from COVID. The challenges of our downtowns, our communities, and our kids. When the challenges seem to be too much, be the ones that rebuild, be the restorers. And hey, if you ever find yourself halfway between Witchita and Dodge City, you should stop by and check out the fine community of Greensburg.