Raw emotions underlie new, green Greensburg

Step up to the rooftoop garden of the Silo Eco-Home and look north. See how much Greensburg has changed in the three years since it was nearly wiped clean by an EF-5 tornado.

Look west and you will see the state-of-the-art medical center. It is loaded with cutting-edge green features, such as a wind turbine, gray-water recycling, heat-recovery systems and a concrete-reinforced conference room with a three-day supply of food and water.

Look east and you will see the dramatic passive-solar rooflines of the school that soon will educate children from throughout Kiowa County.

What you will not see, however, are trees.

Most of Greensburg's trees were hauled away after the storm. Around town, barren zombie trees jut out of the ground at ghoulish angles, a reminder of what Greensburg lost on May 4, 2007, and what it cannot readily replace.

Eleven people in Greensburg died as a result of the storm. Five hundred people — more than a third of the population — moved away afterward. As for that other greening of Greensburg, it will be years before residents can look out the windows of their new, energy-efficient homes and see the foliage in all its pre-storm glory.

"We're a very tender community emotionally right now," said Mayor Bob Dixson. "We've been running on adrenaline for three years, and now our emotions are catching up with us. Our loss has been internalized for three years, and it hasn't spilled out because we've been uplifting each other by being busy.

"We had a cause. Now we are back to so-called normalcy."

Homegrown innovation

The story of Greensburg — tornado-ravaged Kansas community rebuilds as a model of sustainable design despite the challenges of rural life — continues to prove irresistible to reporters from around the world.

Architects, politicians, eco-vangelists, actors, cable network producers — a lot of people came to Greensburg, bringing their wild ideas for transforming the town. You see their handiwork in the town's modern-looking, ultra-green business incubator, which was built with $1 million donated by Frito-Lay's Sun Chips brand and $400,000 from actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who was involved in the Planet Green TV series "Greensburg."

Across Main Street from the incubator is a nondescript, L-shaped brick mall known as Kiowa County United. It also was the result of some audacious thinking — but it was homegrown.

Kiowa County United came about one night in October 2008, when Susan Brown padded into her kitchen to find her husband, Scott, punching buttons on a calculator.

The Browns live in Mullinville, 11 miles slightly southwest of Greensburg, but Scott Brown is a pillar of Greensburg's business community. His father founded an auction house in 1940, and Scott Miller moved it to Greensburg's east edge. The building was just out of the tornado's path, and Brown shared it with people whose businesses were wiped out.

Eighteen months later, prospects for rebuilding Main Street remained grim. The incubator, when it opened, would have only five tiny storefronts. Developers would come through Greensburg and talk to Brown about building retail space. They said that to get a return on their investments, they would have to charge around $1,700 in rent. Brown told them that was eight times the rent shopkeepers had paid before.

"So they all left," he said of the developers.

Then a thought woke him in the middle of the night: "Why don't I do what Dad did?"

In 1961, Brown's father had saved the greasy spoon in Mullinville by forming a nonprofit corporation. With no promises for a return on their investments, his dad raised $30,000 from his neighbors and reopened the cafe, which is still in business.

Scott Brown told his wife, "I'm going to sell shares for $5,000. I'll be up-front with people: 'You'll never see your money back. You will never get a penny of interest, but you'll get businesses on Main Street.' "

That night, the Browns put in the first $50,000. By Christmas, 85 local donors had increased the total to $1 million. They got a tax deduction and the right to buy greeting cards in Greensburg.

"The people in this county recognized that if we didn't do it ourselves, it wasn't going to get done," Scott Brown said.

Two engraved stones were installed in the building's facade overlooking Kansas 54 and Main Street. One reads "Kiowa County United 2009." The other reads, "Ad Astra Per Aspera: To The Stars Through Difficulties," Kansas' state motto.

Resistance at home

When Steve Hewitt was named city administrator in 2006, he thought he would be lucky to have a $1 million project to develop during his term. Then came the storm.

He has since presided over a slew of multimillion-dollar projects and was named Administrator of the Year by a national organization. He has been to China as part of a delegation, testified before Congress and been featured on the "Greensburg" TV show.

Lately, though, Hewitt has met resistance at home, and it has been as stiff and relentless as the western Kansas wind.

A vocal critic of Hewitt's was elected in April to the Greensburg City Council. When Hewitt advocated a two-mile zone around the city to keep hog farms from moving in, three dozen angry farmers showed up for an acrimonious public hearing, and the Planning Commission quickly dropped the idea.

The letters section of the Kiowa County Signal, the region's weekly newspaper, is a regular venting place for locals upset at the price tag for rebuilding Greensburg.

"The incubator building was not a bad idea but the cost was insane," wrote one person. Another accused Hewitt of passing big-budget items without citizen input and not making financial information public.

Hewitt recalled what a city manager of another tornado-stricken Kansas town told him.

"He warned me there is going to be a big pushback," Hewitt said. "And there is. There's this struggle, and I want it to go away."

Recently, much of the struggle has centered on the town's major attraction, The World's Largest Hand-Dug Well, a 109-foot-deep engineering wonder known simply as the Big Well.

Before the storm, the Big Well attracted thousands of visitors. Three years into the recovery, a Big Well museum is still on the drawing board, and the locals aren't happy about it.

"I get asked every day when visitors can go in," Stacy Barnes, the Big Well's director, said at a meeting with the architects, from Kansas City-based BNIM.

The budget and design process has dragged on for months largely because of the project's cost: $3 million for a 6,500-square-foot museum — and the exhibits, designed by the world-renowned Ralph Appelbaum Associates, are currently unfunded.

What drives up the cost of the Big Well, and everything else built in town, is the fact that construction crews must be paid to live in Greensburg until their work is done.

Chance for greatness

Four years ago, Greensburg had a story about its future. It was a story that hundreds of other small towns tell themselves every day:

We are in decline. Our population will just get smaller and older. Main Street will empty out, the school will close, and young people will move to the city and leave their roots behind.

Greensburg has changed its story about the future. Yes, people quarrel about the way forward, but that in itself is a psychological shift from before the storm.

"There's a sense in the whole county that we need to keep focused and keep working at it," said Dennis McKinney, a former state representative from Greensburg who is now the state treasurer.

"A certain amount of conflict is inevitable, but I am more positive than I was four years ago that we can re-create new businesses, that we will have one great high school," McKinney said. "We have an opportunity to achieve something great."

One of the new occupants of Kiowa County United is the Green Bean Coffee Co., owned by Kari and Tim Kyle. They grew up near Greensburg, and their parents live in Kiowa County, but in the 1990s, the couple decided their future was in Rogers, a fast-growing community in northwest Arkansas.

"If you'd told me a year ago that I was going to quit a perfectly good job I had for 14 years, with benefits, I would have said you were out of your ever-loving mind," Kari Kyle said.

When Tim Kyle lost his job, they reconsidered. Kari Kyle had always wanted to start a coffee shop. They knew retail space was available in Greensburg. They missed rural life. Their newborn son, Andy, was going to miss his grandparents.

And there was something else. Something Kari Kyle had seen the day that the Kansas National Guard let her husbands' parents into Greensburg to clean up. A sign sprayed on a house: "Struck Down But Not Destroyed." And one that made her laugh: "House For Sale. New A/C."

Kari Kyle said she thought to herself, "These people aren't going anywhere."

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