Greensburg residents form Kiowa County United to help small businesses
By Mary Hooper
The future of Greensburg, in the aftermath of the EF-5 tornado that obliterated the town on May 4, 2007, was by no means certain. Indeed, gazing at the mountains of wreckage, many wondered if Greensburg even had a future.
But city officials and townspeople rallied, and, in a display of grit and faith, vowed to rebuild their town. And they have. Although it’s more accurate to say they are. For the job will take years.
Nevertheless, as the third anniversary of the tornado approaches, Greensburg residents can point with pride to:
* The Kiowa County Memorial Hospital, a 15-bed, $25 million structure on U.S. 54 near the west end of town that will also include a day care center for employees’ children, a pharmacy and related medical services;
* A 4,700-square-foot, $2.9 million city hall on Main Street;
* Plans to rebuild the Twilight Theater and the Big Well Museum;
* The 5.4.7 Arts Center, designed and built by architecture students at the University of Kansas, which offers art classes for adults and children and exhibitions of the work of regional artists;
* The 10,000-square-foot, $3.4 million business incubator building;
* A tornado survivor, the county courthouse, built in 1914, refurbished and renovated at a cost of $5 million;
* A wind farm of ten turbines being built south of town by John Deere Renewable Energy;
* A $50 million schools campus, comprising pre-kindergarten through grade 12, now called Kiowa County Schools, serving students of all grade levels from Greensburg and Mullinville, and high school students from Haviland;
* The first two of what promises to be a dozen “eco-homes,” a project of the non-profit organization Greensburg GreenTown;
* The return of between 800 and 900 of the town’s roughly 1,500 residents.
The funding sources for new construction include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state, insurance settlements and donations from individuals and corporations.
In addition, most of the new buildings were built to LEED standards, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a designation of the United States Green Building Council, as part of the city’s determination to rebuild “green,” using recyclable materials and energy-efficient technology.
But as Scott Brown, the owner, with his wife, Susan, of Brown Auction & Real Estate, saw concrete being poured and walls going up, he thought something was missing — the small shops and businesses that not only sell goods and services but also animate a community.
Before the tornado, Greensburg had, according to Brown, “your standard old Main Street.”
Greensburg’s business district was erected in the decades before and after the dawn of the 20th century. The buildings evoked a different, slower time, an era of horses and buggies, Model Ts and ’29 Chevies.
Even though the city’s fortunes and population had declined over the decades, Main Street, at the time of the tornado, had a print shop, a vintage clothing store, a picture-framing shop, a thrift shop, banks, accountants’ offices, a furniture store and drug store, among others.
As the city rebuilt, though, many wondered whether businesses could reopen.
“Most of the businesspeople who were operating on Main Street were paying rents of between $300 and $350 a month. They were barely making it, and were in no position to borrow $250,000 to put up a building,” said Brown.
Meanwhile, the business incubator was being built on the west side of ruined Main Street to showcase start-up ventures that in time would relocate as they grew.
“A group of us got together and said, we can surely figure out some way to replace the old Main Street,” Brown said. “A lot of money was coming in to Greensburg, from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and others, but there was little help for the small business.”
In October, 2008, about a dozen successful business owners and farmers formed Kiowa County United, a non-profit organization, dedicated to building a mall on the east side of Main. Eighteen months later, the mall was finished and ready for occupancy, and KCU had raised all but about $100,000 of the $1.5 million needed to build.
“Just shows what a bunch of determined people can do,” said Brown. “And we did it without outside help.”
Brown, who lives in Mullinville, said he got his inspiration from a notion that his father, John, who started the auction business in 1940, came up with to save Mullinville’s café, the Coffee Shop.
The Coffee Shop was the only place in town where people could gather and schmooze over a mug o’ joe. When the elderly proprietor died, the place closed up, and local coffee-and-gossip lovers were bereft.
John Brown and some other residents decided to build a new café and raise the money by selling shares at $100 per. They raised $35,000 selling shares and secured a loan for the balance of $30,000.
“They went to a local banker. He refused, said it was a poor loan. But then he said, ‘I need a place to have a cup of coffee.’ They got the loan and seven years later it was paid for, and the Gables Café has been there ever since. That was in 1961,” said Brown.
Raising the money locally appealed to the KCU committee. But instead of selling shares, KCU sought pledges. At that first meeting, eight people pledged an astonishing $365,000, individual pledges ranging from $5,000 to $50,000.
The Rotary International helped out with a gift of $45,000, donated by Rotarians worldwide.
KCU has some 80 members — individuals or organizations — that contributed $5,000 or more. But there are many others, according to Gamble, who contributed $10, $20, $50.
“One hundred percent of those who pledged, honored their commitment,” said Brown.
Even before the mall opened, it had nine tenants ready to move in. They are Starla’s Stitch n’ Frame, The Last Tangle beauty shop, LaTerra Naturals, Fleener’s Furniture & Flooring, Main Street Flowers, Real Deals, Studio 54 General Store, the Green Bean coffee shop and the Mackie Shae Boutique.
The 15,000-square-foot mall was designed by McCluggage, Van Sickle & Perry architects of Wichita. It’s a “green” building, with walls of insulated concrete blocks and high-efficiency lighting and HVAC.
KCU expects the mall to be fully paid for by the tornado anniversary. Rents will go into an economic development fund which, as it grows, will provide money for future retail and business development.
“All rent money will be reinvested, not just in Greensburg, but also Haviland and Mullinville. This is a self-perpetuating economic development group. Those who have donated money can know that their gift will keep on giving to the people of Kiowa County,” said KCU board member Randy Kelly.
The S.D. Robinette Building
When S. D. Robinette built a three-story red brick building on Main Street back in the early 20th century, he wanted posterity to know it.
Hence, his name is carved prominently into a sandstone block on the facade.
S.D. Robinette also wanted his namesake edifice to last, so he built it to stand up to high winds, even 200 mph ones.
When the tornado finished blowing Greensburg away, one building was left standing in the main business district on Main Street.
The S.D. Robinette building.
It’s built like a fortress, according to Gary Goodman.
“It has three-foot-thick cement walls in the basement, seven inches of concrete on both floors and the roof, three layers of brick form the walls and there’s rebar every three or four inches.”
Today, beautifully restored, it is the site of Where’d Ya Find That antiques and collectibles, owned by Goodman and his wife, Erica, who moved to Greensburg from Las Vegas some years ago seeking a slower-paced environment in which to raise their children.
Erica had been owner of Fran’s Antiques Mall, housed in a former church on South Sycamore Street. It and most of the contents were carried away by the tornado.
The Goodmans could have moved on to another nice small town after the tornado destroyed their home and business, but they stayed. Erica was even elected to City Council.
“Greensburg feels like home,” she said.
The Goodmans bought the Robinette building a year after the tornado and set about to repair the roof and clean up the water damage and mold.
Today, their building, which anchors the south end of the new retail mall, is both home and business.
The first floor is a colorful array of antiques and collectibles. The floor itself is of two-tone bamboo. The second floor is home -- cozy, comfortable, tastefully furnished and with the same bamboo flooring.
The Goodmans love living over the shop.
“We just walk downstairs to go to work,” said Erica.