New Greensburg mayor will attack rebuilding one piece at a time

06/03/2007 1:01 AM

01/24/2008 5:15 PM

It's been one month since Greensburg was devastated by a tornado packing 205-mph winds, and only a few days since John Janssen was named the new mayor. (Lonnie McCollum, who in the early days was a tireless booster, resigned the post citing mental exhaustion.)

Janssen, the former City Council president, was described by McCollum as "extremely intelligent" and better able to handle the job over the long haul.

Intrigued, we caught up with Janssen on Friday and asked him about his new role in helping Greensburg rise again:

What's your vision for Greensburg?

"I think we need to rebuild it bigger and better than it was. Not too many towns get to be reborn bigger and better again."

Janssen said he envisions a tourism complex in the downtown area that would better incorporate the Big Well with the business district. There would be a green space with a memorial to the tornado victims. For safety, all residences would be on the south side of the U.S. 54 highway so children would not have to cross it. The highway would be moved a block north of its current location so heavy truck traffic could move through town more smoothly -- there would be no stoplights. Because of the interest in the tornado, there would be some kind of tornado museum.

What is the best way to rebuild?

Janssen says zoning needs to be enforced. For example, trailer homes would not be allowed next to a $200,000 home.

"There is a place for a trailer house, but they all need to be together in an organized and planned park."

Other changes would include burying electrical cable.

With those kind of improvements, he said, "suddenly we have a very attractive community to people outside."

He said outsiders would bring with them amenities, like "a neat little coffeehouse."

What motivates you to do this difficult job?

"I guess I would blame it on my parents. My parents were both public minded. You need to give back to the community, is what I feel like. We have so many opportunities. If we drop the ball, it's our own fault."

How do you keep from being overwhelmed by the responsibility of being mayor at such a challenging time?

"My philosophy is... you've got to participate, but I don't have to live" at City Hall.

Janssen said because of his work commitments, he has to limit the hours he spends working as mayor.

"It's a matter of managing the time commitment."

What do you say to townspeople who find themselves disillusioned about Greensburg's future?

"This kind of thing does look overwhelming. You've just got to take it in pieces. You can't swallow it all at one time."

Janssen said it is realistic that the town's population could drop by half in the short term, as some people move away. It could be 10 more years before the population returns to what it was before the tornado -- about 1,400.

How do you describe yourself?

"I am optimistic. I tend to be the one who crunches numbers.

"I can be impatient. My attitude is, let's make a decision and move on. We don't have to think a thing to death."

Janssen said that at the same time, he is flexible.

What is a day in the life of the Greensburg mayor like now?

"It's a zoo around here," he said, sitting in a trailer that is the temporary City Hall.

He said the job requires him to stay in close touch with Steve Hewitt, the city administrator.

"If he says 'I need you in a meeting,' I'll be at that meeting. There's days when I don't show up at all. And there's days when I do whatever Steve tells me."

Janssen said he can be blunt. "I'm not a good politician."

What is the most difficult part of your job?

Finding common ground or compromise, "and not getting frustrated with all the agencies and all the meetings.

"It's to strike a balance where you can do the best that you can for the community and not offend the bureaucrats."

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

"The fact I think we're going to get this thing right if people will bear with us.

"I'm a person who likes projects."

What does Greensburg still need to recover?

"Part of it is we just need time, because people have got to get adapted to where we are and where the rebuilding is.... I think a lot of people just need a healing."

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