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Thursday, July 31, 2014

A tornado museum for Greensburg?

BY DION LEFLER
The Wichita Eagle

The town that already has the world's largest hand-dug well might one day have the world's largest tornado museum.

That was one of the more popular ideas raised during a meeting Tuesday of local business people who are just beginning to plan the economic future of this tornado-shattered community.

While acknowledging that it's a sensitive topic -- less than two weeks after tornadoes killed 12 people in Greensburg and neighboring counties and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses -- local farmer and business owner Kim Gamble suggested the city take advantage of the international media exposure.

"We can capitalize on this situation with a tornado museum... that's the kind of vision we need to have," Gamble said.

While the meeting was informal and no votes were taken, many heads in the crowd were nodded in agreement.

Scott Brown, an auction house owner who facilitated the discussion, said it could be "a whale of a tourist trap." He said he could see leaving a city block as is -- with toppled buildings, tumbled cars and stripped trees -- as a testament to the power of nature.

The museum park could also include displays of artifacts to show how the town was before the tornado and a memorial to the people who died in the storm.

Antique dealer Erica Goodman said that because of the media attention, people will come to see the town.

"Whether you want it or not, it is coming," she said.

Opportunity in tragedy

A running theme throughout the meeting was the need to take advantage of the opportunity that the tornado -- tragic as it was -- offers to re-energize a city that, like many small Kansas towns, was aging and declining year by year.

"The best of Greensburg, for the most part, is sitting right in this room," Brown said. "This would be an excellent time for Greensburg to come forward with a business plan."

Brown said he plans to convert his building, at the east edge of town and only slightly damaged, into a temporary workspace for the city's business people.

Eventually, he hopes to develop a strip mall for businesses and professional offices.

City Council member John Janssen agreed the need for good planning is paramount.

"We've got to think this through, because we've got a clean slate and we want to do it right."

He said the city is beefing up its planning staff and "probably in the next two to three weeks, we'll have a bigger building staff than Hutchinson."

Meeting leaders invited business people around the room to stand and say if they planned to stay or go. To the list of those planning to stay, they added ideas for other businesses the community needs and should try to recruit.

At the end of the meeting, the list had 61 entries.

Body shop owner Scott Reinecke said the plan should focus on trying to attract younger residents and families.

"If we don't do that, we'll be back in the same condition we were in before this occurred," he said.

He said a revitalized Greensburg should try to attract some national retailers that appeal to a younger audience, such as a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Business, state roles

The business people also appeared to be in agreement that they shouldn't wait for government aid before getting started. Brown asked the businesspeople to raise their hands if anyone from the Small Business Administration or the Federal Emergency Management Agency had promised to write them a check. No hands were raised.

Mark Randle, a spokesman for the SBA, said the agency has so far approved $900,000 in low-interest loans, all of it for housing.

But he pledged there would be money available for businesses when they need it and that SBA is doing what it can to streamline the application process.

Kansas Secretary of Revenue Joan Wagnon promised that what the state can do, it will.

That process will start next week in the Kansas Legislature. On Tuesday, the Legislature will meet for one day for its annual "sine die" session, usually a ceremonial event to adjourn for the year.

But this year, lawmakers expect to move a bill to authorize the state Finance Council to take any necessary and prudent actions to help Greensburg recover.

As for what those actions may be, "We're going to follow your lead," Wagnon told the crowd.

The state's role will largely be to "knock down the roadblocks" that could impede recovery, she said.

"I don't need to bring you solutions," she said. "You're going to come up with those."

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527

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