Greensburg has made great progress in 10 years, but population is still low

May 5, 2017

It’s a rainy Tuesday in April, bringing local farmers to the Crazy Mule for a noon meal – which is located in a seven-year-old downtown that is nearly 80 percent full. Down the street is the two-year-old movie theater, which claims to have the biggest screen between Wichita and Denver.

Dixson, who was heading out of town for a funeral, said his wife, Ann, was filling in at the school where the grandkids attend. The countywide school, with its state-of-the-art technology and plenty of windows that bring in natural light, is only seven years old, as well.

Greensburg was established in 1886. But actually, 95 percent of the structures these days are less than a decade old.

“Think about this: Ten years later, we have kids in grade school up until third grade that is all they have really ever known,” said Dixson, the town’s mayor. “This is Greensburg to them. All they know about the tornado is what people tell them – and the pictures on the wall.”

Ten years earlier, Dixson and his wife huddled in a basement with rugs over their heads as a tornado ripped through the town. When they emerged, they found their house in a pile in the north yard. Through the lightning, they could see their neighbors’ homes were gone.

“We finally realized that it was the whole town,” said Dixson.

Rebuilding from scratch

Around 9 p.m. on May 4, 2007, a tornado would form in Comanche County. As it traveled its 29-mile path, it gained momentum – becoming an EF5 as winds hit more than 205 mph. The tornado grew to 1.7 miles wide when it reached Greensburg, flattening 95 percent of the town and affecting 1,500 lives. Thirteen people in all would die from effects of the tornado – some of whom had even sought the safety of their basements.

In just a matter of minutes, gone were the lives that people like the Dixsons had created over the years. The family photographs and family heirlooms passed down generation to generation and all their clothes and their belongings were blown away. So were the churches, the school, the hospital, the water tower, city hall and the downtown, along with countless other structures – some more than a century old.

The task ahead was daunting. In all, 961 homes and businesses were destroyed. Another 216 had significant damage and 300 others sustained minor damage, according to the National Weather Service.

It would have been easy to walk away, leaving Greensburg just a memory. Many did leave. But in the days afterward, there were several, including the Dixsons, who stepped up and said they would rebuild their city, making plans under a red and white tent. Moreover, city leaders and residents decided they would build back a better Greensburg from scratch – turning it into an eco-friendly, energy-efficient “Green Town.”

Ten years later, a new Greensburg emerges – complete with new state-of-the-art buildings – most built within the first five years of the storm. In fact, besides “The World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well,” Greensburg also has the world’s most LEED-certified buildings per capita.

Yet, the scars are still visible 10 years later, such as the gaps where homes used to be and the trees that are stunted from the storm.

For those who stayed, it hasn’t been easy.

Residents like local banker Steve Kirk had dreams for Greensburg 10 years down the road. With the momentum of the first five years, he had hoped to see population rebound back to 1,500 – what it was the day of the tornado.

But in the aftermath, half the population left. Some couldn’t afford to rebuild new homes. Some moved to be closer to family. Some found residences in nearby communities, including Pratt, Haviland and Mullinville. The 2010 census showed Greensburg with 777 residents.

Today the population hovers around 900, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

“I think there were hopes out there we’d have 2,500 people,” Kirk said as he ate lunch at the local Mexican restaurant with his wife, Judi. “I don’t know that we want to be 10,000 or not. But you’re never totally satisfied.”

Businesses have come and gone, but little industrial growth ever invested in Greensburg. The town’s industrial park, built after the tornado, leads to one building – the local gun club. Leaders have tried to lure business, some green-centered, but to no avail.

“We had some companies that made some big promises,” said Dixson. “They were fly-by-night at best. Those companies never landed anywhere.”

The city partnered with Arlington, Texas’ Center for Innovation to serve as a catalyst for technology-led economic development. But that didn’t materialize to growth, either.

“Sometimes you throw something to the wall and it sticks and sometimes it crashes to the floor and the glass breaks,” said Dixson. “You have to keep trying.”

Local cheerleaders

Local businessman Scott Brown was having coffee with “the Estes boys with BTI” a few weeks after the tornado when they began discussing Greensburg’s future.

“We were drinking coffee in Greensburg and decided, ‘What in the hell is going to happen? No one wants to commit to anything,’ “ said Brown, who owns Brown Auction and Real Estate, of the conversation.

So they formed a committee and contacted everyone they knew who had a business. They invited them to Brown’s auction facility, one of the few structures not destroyed by the tornado. Everyone had a chance to talk and discuss rebuilding.

Brown asked what businesses thought they would like to rebuild in Greensburg if they could. Sixty-one business owners indicated they would if they could.

“Hell, I didn’t know there were 61 businesses in Greensburg before the tornado,” Brown said, adding, “We had everyone from the person selling ice cream cones to the person selling tractors and combines. That night people left feeling encouraged that their neighbors wanted to do something right there in Greensburg.”

But Greensburg still needed a downtown. Brown recalled how a Kansas City businessman came to his office wanting to make an investment in Greensburg, saying they’d like to see a 15 to 20 percent return.

Brown informed them they’d never get that kind of profit.

“That immediately put in my mind, ‘If we are going to have a Main Street back, we are going to have to do it ourselves,’ “ he said.

Brown said Greensburg needed a structure where business owners could pay just enough to cover their bills. It would cost $1.5 million. But Brown, not wanting the town to carry a debt, told the local business group that if he could raise a million upfront, he’d get it started.

He went business-to-business, farm-to-farm asking for a minimum pledge of at least $5,000. He himself pledged a sizable donation, putting teeth into the commitment.

“I told them, ‘You aren’t going to get a penny back – this is an investment in the community.’ “

When the business group met again two months later, Brown had raised $960,000 – $40,000 shy of the goal.

The group, which eventually formed as Kiowa County United, decided that was close enough. Some even gave more. A grant for the area community foundation helped, as well. In March 2010, the Kiowa County United building opened. Today it includes a restaurant, which he and local farmer Ki Gamble invested in so the town could have a sit-down restaurant with home cooking. There is also a flower shop, frame shop, hair dresser, among others. Only two locations are vacant.

“It is pretty unique,” said Brown. “The whole Main Street business district is owned by the community. Where are you going to find another example of that?”

Need for housing

Dennis McKinney, a farmer and former Kansas lawmaker who lives just outside town on Main Street, never swayed on rebuilding. They rebuilt on the same property. Today, however, like most homes in Greensburg, he has a safe room, complete with boots and a flashlight.

“We planned them in all public buildings,” he said. The Big Well, the hospital and the school all have safe rooms.

He noted that city leaders like former city administrator Steve Hewitt and school leaders like former superintendent Darin Headrick, did the heavy lifting to get Greensburg rebuilt. Then Gov. Kathleen Sebelius also helped lay the groundwork for the strategic planning process.

He admitted he was somewhat skeptical about building green. Then he thought about his ancestors, including his Depression-era parents who made it through the Dust Bowl. They lived by those same principles.

“My dad used to have a windmill to power the house,” he said.

Their new home has better insulation, better windows, high-efficiency heating and cooling. He notices lower electric bills.

But not everyone could afford to build new. It shows in the population, McKinney said.

The tornado destroyed the older, more affordable housing that would have values of $50,000 to $80,000, said Brown. Everything built new is at a level a young family with a moderate income can’t necessarily afford.

“They are gone, they are blown away,” Brown said of moderate housing. “And that, in my mind, has hindered the growth of our population.”

“If you look at it realistically ... what we have is a lot of new homes in Greensburg, but they were built by local people or they got a good insurance on what they lost.”

McKinney said a survey of employers shows a good percentage of the area workforce is driving from out of town and out of county to work in Greensburg.

“To get those families to live here, we have to get affordable housing,” McKinney said, adding he envisions manufactured homes, triplexes and other structures to help bring in residents.

Brown said he could see population rising above pre-tornado levels with adequate housing. He’s spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make it work. A housing committee even formed. Costs, however, are prohibitive – even for government-subsidized homes.

“If we had 20 houses for sale between $40,000 and $80,000, I bet we would have 200 more people living here in a month,” Brown said. “How do we get another 800 people living in town? You either have jobs that pay good enough that they can afford a new house or you come up with affordable housing.”

New families

Despite population declines, Jeff Blackburn, pastor of Greensburg Mennonite Church, said he has seen more young couples wanting to be part of a town that was starting from the ground up.

That shows in the county’s birth rates. Mitzi Hesser, director of the Kiowa County Health Department, said Kiowa County averaged about 20 births before the tornado. Numbers have increased, and in 2010 there were 28 births.

“Young families were drawn to be part of our rebuilding and wanted to raise a family here, which has been pretty exciting for us,” she said.

That includes Stacy Barnes, the Dixsons’ daughter. Stacy and her husband, Travis, were living in Lawrence when the tornado struck. At they time, they hadn’t ever considered moving back. But, as weeks went by, as they helped her parents clean up, the couple, who both grew up in the county, wanted to be part of the rebuilding.

Now the Barneses and their two small children, Amelia, 7, and Truman, 6, live in a new home in Greensburg.

“This is their home,” Barnes said of her children. “They don’t have any memories of what it was like before the tornado.”

Barnes has been working to help Greensburg continue to move forward for the past nine years. She is the city’s convention and tourism director.

More of an emphasis is being put on not only bringing in businesses, but growing opportunities locally. One newcomer has started a 3-D printing business.

The numbers aren’t at what they were, Barnes said. But that doesn’t mean Greensburg isn’t a healthy community.

“It’s more about quality of life,” she said, noting population is increasing. “We are building for the next generation and beyond.”

“Greensburg was founded in 1886,” she said. “It took over 100 years for it to be where it was at the time of the tornado. Look where we have come in 10 years’ time. What we have done in a 10-year span is pretty remarkable.”

Kirk said at the time of the tornado, Greensburg was just another declining rural Kansas town. While population isn’t back to what some would like to see it, Kirk still said folks have to put it in perspective: Greensburg was rebuilt from nothing.

“You can be discouraged,” he said. “But we are giving people an opportunity to move here. We have a nice school, a hospital. We made the opportunity available.”

“Where do we want to be in 10 years? We still want to be Greensburg,” said Dixson. “But I want to get past being known as a tornado town.

“We’ve made tremendous progress,” he said.