2011 Rural Voices Winner
Turning onto a dirt road with undulations comparable to that of a washboard, Julie scrutinized the horizon, picking out almost imperceptible markings against the skyline. Her gaze narrowed as she paused on a dilapidated structure that had served as the town’s primary attraction for over 30 years. The tiled roof, once regal in appearance as it shimmered underneath the effervescent sun, sagged humbly in defeat, permanently frozen in time, marked only by an umber layer of soot and decay. Brittle, bony wires now hung in place of the voluptuous vines that had danced and tilted across the honey-dew bricks, clawing at what remained of the crumbling ashen chunks. The windows, once home to rotund, rosy faces, now unwilling portals into a black abyss. She shuddered involuntarily as she recalled memories of her past youth, now shrouded in the same sheen of decay and melancholy that veiled the beauty of the edifice. As she pulled her Chevrolet to a stop (kicking up a dust cloud that evoked a pang of conscious guilt) she silently began to weep. The crippled, decrepit community center was amongst colleagues. Between gulps of air she surveyed the neighboring buildings. To the left remained only a skeletal outline of what was once a thriving art center. Years ago filled with portraits of the jubilant townspeople and murals of thunderstorms ripping across the purple Kansas sky that were so realistic that even now she could smell the rain’s sweet scent, Julie’s memory was now permanently branded with the image of cracked faces and weathered raindrops marred by the very muse that inspired their creation. To the right lay a trampled and yellowing tent, battered and shredded by wild beasts. Her mind quickly recalled a time when her mother would usher her down to the Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning, watching for tempting mud puddles that would claim even the most vigilant of children. She smiled only slightly as she remembered how her mother would very deliberately weigh each tomato in her hand, conversing with the neighbors as she measured its intrinsic value. Regret swelled quickly within her chest. She had deserted the place where her very identity was so lovingly molded and shaped by teachers, parents, neighbors, mentors and friends. Her tensed hand rested only slightly upon the art center’s flaking door handle. The impact of the town’s decay hit her with full force. She crumpled to the ground. “Because of me and others like me whose impatience to leave our hometowns over-powered our longing to remain in a supportive community, the place that I have called home is now gone.”
Such has been the destiny for many small communities scattered throughout Kansas’s golden landscape. Tattered buildings, broken windows and crumbling infrastructures are all that pay tribute to the intense, joyful life that once inhabited these very buildings. But who or what is to blame? It can simply be blamed upon leadership…or a crippling lack thereof. Leadership, by the very definition, is inclusive of insight, ambition, drive and passion. Those communities that continue to thrive and strive towards new innovations and cultural developments are implementing three basic principles that can successfully be applied and manufactured in every single Kansas hometown. These fundamental basics center around: the arts, business development and physical and emotional health.
Many small hometowns have already reaped the benefits of instilling a deep-rooted appreciation for and promotion of the arts. Driving down main street Lucas your senses are immediately accosted with artistic endeavors of every character. Their repertoire includes: an Apple Festival that is a celebration dedicated solely to the artistic discipline, a larger-than-life replica of a toilet complete with plumbing and restrooms, a mural plastered across several buildings depicting multiple picturesque Kansas scenes, a wide collection of eclectic four foot tall forks decorated with bright, flamboyant colors, a Garden of Eden famous for its detailed and “heavenly” architecture, and even a stain glass window business. Not only has this reflected in an increased revenue for the community as well as a cultural appreciation that is priceless for its inhabitants, but this detail to the importance of the arts has prompted a unity and commitment amongst its natives that rivals that of other smaller communities. The impact that the arts has on a community, regardless of size or population, is imperative when building a strong, supportive, moral town. There are many steps that can be taken in order to begin this cultural acclimation to the arts. One such step would be to promote an artistic competition, awarding the individual with the best mural design with a monetary prize and allowing him/her to place their creation on any building within the city limits. Inviting authors for book signings, dancers for performances, film students for matinees, comedians for skits, and bands for dances all within the context of an Arts Festival (much like Lucas has held) will unite the city by promoting a day of celebration and festive socializing, both crucial aspects in the development of any community. As has been pointed out frequently, the obvious benefits of welcoming the arts into any small town are substantial: an increase in revenue and an appealing reason to establish long term residency. The indirect consequences of such a position are not as obvious, though. Due to the uplifting and creative spirit that any form of art conjures, the effect is a bonding and unity between all who dwell within its upbeat bubble.
As any economic newbie is well aware, the success of any small town, or larger city for that matter, hinges precariously upon the establishment of new businesses. Businesses=employees, employees=revenue, it’s as clear cut as that. Drawing upon the town of Lincoln as a prime example of this concept at work, an abundance of businesses not only creates jobs and subsequently more revenue, but it also serves as a tempting bait for those around the state and even the nation to come and visit. Unique, hand-crafted items that are sold at these businesses are very alluring for those who crave something authentic and lovingly constructed, an anomaly that is not found within the confines of tall skyscrapers and overcrowded subways. Within Lincoln there are scattered multiple businesses that welcome potential customers from the surrounding neighborhoods. Some examples include: Happy Days Diner, The Finch Theater, Harlow Studios, Seirer’s Clothing, Lincoln Sentinel Republican, Gifts and Grinds, Mity Mart, S&S Autobody, Off Key Productions, Village Lines, Duckwalls and many more. All were created because of an environment that welcomes and promotes the development of small businesses. Even community sponsored events can be a starting point when attempting to entice businesses to come to your town. Lincoln sponsors Lincoln Reenactment Days, the Post Rock Festival, and the Holiday Craft Fair. With these community wide celebrations individuals from all over, as well as entrepreneurs, are able to experience all the charm that Lincoln, and any other town, has to offer. Other strategies that would encourage the development of new businesses include: offering tax incentives, cheap real-estate, electrical, plumbing and heating and air-conditioning perks and economic development loans with low interest rates. Encompassing all of these ideas and more are business incubators. These incubators are used in order to encourage businesses to flourish and expand. Some common characteristics of this model include: equipped offices, renovated with the help of public funds, management assistance, and connections to funding avenues. With these tools in mind any community can begin on the road to business prosperity and eventually community prosperity.
While business promotion and artistic sophistication are necessary components in an aspiring community, physical and mental health are equally as vital. Due to physical and mental health, community members are more willing to contribute to and partake in any endeavors that the mayor sees fit to pursue. Farmer’s Markets, WOW fitness centers, and educational programs are all a part of this key component to a healthy community. Specifically, free educational programs such as CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) and Lincoln County Leadership, as well as any other programs that educate community members, are highly advantageous. The social skills that are developed through interactions with others throughout these organizations and programs help citizens stretch outside of their comfort zone, often times benefiting their communities in the process. Fitness centers, as well as Farmer’s Markets, nurture a health conscious environment that benefits all involved. Not only will the rate of hospitalizations decrease in number, but improved health once again allows individuals the time and energy with which to be creative and generate new ideas for a progressive community.
Needless to say, supporting these three simple guiding principles advocates an environment that is perfect for the development of any community. Keeping business promotion, artistic appreciation, and health awareness in mind, the benefits that will be reaped are boundless and numerous. Applying these basics as a community leader, one would be promoting self-actualization in all inhabitants. This in turn would create a city that aggressively pursues success and achievement. So instead of passively allowing a thriving community to travel on the same bumpy road and watching as it slowly crumbles to oblivion, develop a plan based on these ideals and attack it with vigor.
Julie slowly lifted her head, conscious that a sign that she had not previously noticed was casting a dark shadow upon her. Momentary surprise skittered across her features as she slowly read what was plastered across a small billboard that was threatening to topple: “Be the change you want to see”. Pressing her palms against the moist ground she lithely sprang to her feet, a calm look of assurance splayed across her façade. Brushing the clinging chunks of mud off of her jeans she walked confidently towards her vehicle. Opening the trunk, she promptly snatched her clippers that always occupied a corner of her trunk. She marched with purpose as she eyed the two story community center. Julie drew her thick, dark hair into a pony tail, sighed softly, and began to cut away at the vines holding the building prisoner, exposing honey-dew bricks.