Rural renewal: Passionately painting a new look for Stafford's Main Street

Jun 10, 2016

Credit Andrew Whitaker / Hutchinson News

From Kansas Agland:

STAFFORD – They aren’t painting the town red. Not yet.

But a group of dreamers are envisioning their Main Street’s empty storefronts as something more than storage space for someone’s clutter.

One of the dreamers, Jan Turner, points to the building she bought for $50 across the street from her current business, “The Gathering Place.” She envisions it as a music hall with an upstairs apartment.

Next door is the Stafford Mercantile, scheduled to close its door on June 30. Her passion is to nourish people, so she would like to expand her restaurant into that building and keep the soda fountain open.

But for now, Turner and a group of like-minded individuals are taking the first steps to make those dreams reality as they grab paint brushes and freshen up the fronts of 13 local buildings.

“We wanted a street presence and I love to paint. I could paint for three days straight,” said Julie Lyon, an organizer of the town’s newest committee Stafford Call to Action.

When the idea of painting some of the storefronts came up during the group’s first discussion, Turner immediately told them she had a building that could use paint. Other business owners agreed, including places like the local movie theater and Quivira Insurance Agency, which will receive new coats of paint this summer. Some donated the paint, others the money for supplies.

Now, after being organized for just a little more than a month, they have 13 building fronts on their paint list.

Small steps bring change

Wednesday night several volunteers were scraping, priming, and painting the front of Stafford Lumber Company. It’s the second week for this brigade who want nothing more than to make their town a better place.

After spending her day in the courthouse, Stafford County’s Register of Deeds LuAnn Brister switched into her paint clothes to join the group. Unlike Lyon, Brister is not a fan of painting. Still, she shows up.

“I just wanted to help clean the town up a little,” Brister said. “We all need to pitch in and do our part.”

Chelsea Keck and Mary Bunker were also working on this calm summer night, when it would have been nice to sit on the front porch and relax.

However, they are determined to make things better. Lyon hopes they will pick up others once they see how nice the fresh paint looks. The owner of the lumber store has provided the paint and plans to put a new roof on the business.

After they offered to paint the sign at another business, the owner decided to put in new garage doors.

“If we give a little, they give a little, and it works well,” Lyon said. They hope to finish all the painting by the end of the summer.

The spark for this idea flamed when six local residents attended the Big Rural Brainstorm in March, organized by the Kansas Sampler Foundation. Following the event they decided they all wanted to make improvements to their community. Returning home they wasted no time organizing. By April they had their first meeting.

Several ideas came from that first meeting. First, the group agreed they wanted to refurbish Main Street, making the appearance of the buildings nicer. Second, they wanted to work on the brick Centennial planters which once were planted with Bradford pears. The trees grew so large they needed to be cut down.

Now they are trying to decide whether to remove the planters. However, some of the locals are concerned because there are plaques with names of people who made donations for the planters years ago. They believe the plaques should be displayed somewhere if the planters are taken away.

The group’s third idea was to explore economic viability. According to Jan VanDam, director of Stafford Recreation Commission, there is little city zoning and a lot of absentee landlords. Many of the Main Street buildings are used for storage.

Marci Penner, organizer of the Big Rural Brainstorm, said the event is a call to action, people go home energized and do things.

Some will take personal action, while others focus on community, Penner said.

New life

Coming into Stafford from the east, along U.S. 50, a sign welcomes travelers to “Stafford, Gateway to Quivira National Wildlife Refuge,” which is just 10 miles north of town.

Today there are about 1,100 residents in Stafford, which is located in Stafford County. The county seat of St. John is 12 miles away.

According to a U.S. Census report, the county was one of 41 rural Kansas counties whose population peaked in 1910. Back then, the town’s Main Street was thriving with commerce. However, by 2010 the population had declined by 64.5 percent from its peak in 1910 when it had 12,510 residents. In 2015, it was estimated there were 4,236 people in the county.

Moreover, a study from the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University revealed it had a highly-aged population group, very few people having kids and an outward migration because of job opportunities.

Those grim facts don’t seem to deter the Stafford Call to Action group. Perhaps that’s because several of its members are newcomers to town, Lyon included. She arrived in October to help remodel and then manage the Stafford Motor Inn which has 16 rooms and will eventually have a public laundromat.

Carolyn Dunn bought the run-down motel at an auction in Dec. 2014, because she didn’t want someone else to buy it and turn it into the town’s next storage unit.

“We thought it had potential and could be a viable business,” said Dunn, who is the Stafford County Economic Development Director. Then she hired Lyon, who has done everything from putting in new toilets and bathroom fixtures, to painting, and remodeling.

The pet-friendly motel is frequented by hunters, oil and gas workers and drivers of pilot cars for wind turbines. It’s also a good halfway point for people traveling from Colorado to Missouri.

Fueled with enthusiasm and ideas, Lyon said it’s good she doesn’t know the particulars about people. Instead, she’ll approach anyone with her ideas.

Another relative newcomer is Jim Stanford. Originally from Milwaukee, he was working in Fort Worth and Hutchinson before opening a hunting lodge, Central Kansas Outfitters, outside of town. He recently bought the former American Legion building which had been in operation in that spot since the 1930s. It closed on New Year’s Eve 2014 and sat vacant. People wanted to use it for storage.

“A local friend convinced me to buy it,” Stanford said. “It has come a long, long way.” He has opened a bar he has named the Refuge Bar and Grill. Specials include rib-eye steaks on Saturday, Friday night all-you-can-eat brats and hot dogs and Thursday he offers an all-you-can-eat taco bar.

VanDam, who zips around town in a golf cart, came from Wichita looking for a smaller community. She and the other newbies are the catalyst, but they work with a lot of existing ideas.

“We have a lot of dreams,” VanDam said as she stepped out of the Refuge Bar and Grill and glanced down Main Street.

To learn more about Stafford Call to Action visit www.staffordcalltoaction.com