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GREENSBURG, Kan.—On the north side of this Midwestern town, an enormous white grain silo—one of few structures that survived a 2007 tornado—stands watch over construction in the business district along U.S. Route 54.
This commercial strip is still being rebuilt, along with the rest of Greensburg. New low-slung, ranch-style homes line some streets. Others are pocked by weedy open lots studded with "for sale" signs. Stumps dot the landscape, remnants of the once-stately trees that shaded the town.
Greensburg's toehold on the wide-open prairie of western Kansas still looks tenuous to an outsider, but locals see things differently. The enormous piles of wreckage left behind by the storm are now gone. To the south, a rebuilt water tower rises. Nearby, the Big Well—the "world's largest hand-dug well" and Greensburg's signature tourist attraction—is open for visitors. After operating the city government for over a year out of two adjoining trailers plunked down on the corner of Pine and Wisconsin streets, a new city hall is set to open this summer.
Like every public building in town, it's being built to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum standard—the U.S. Green Building Council's highest certification for energy efficiency and other ecofriendly qualities. "What we're working towards is an place where young professionals will want to come to Greensburg to be part of our movement," city planner Mike Gurnee says.
Before the tornado, Greensburg—founded in 1886 and named for local stagecoach owner Donald. R. "Cannonball" Green—was a dying rural town of 1,500, losing around two percent of its population every year as agricultural jobs faded away. Afterward, city leaders realized that rebuilding the town from scratch as an energy-efficient, climate-conscious "green town" was an opportunity to save Greensburg. In December 2007, the city council committed to rebuilding all public buildings LEED Platinum.
"We don't feel like we're doing anything extraordinary," says Ruth Ann Wedel, who has lived in Greensburg for about four decades. "But others say we're establishing a model."
The city council's resolution did not apply to privately owned buildings. But several businesses, such as the local John Deere dealership, have risen to the challenge to build back LEED Platinum. Many locals express heartfelt gratitude for these practical demonstrations of belief in the "new" Greensburg. .
So have some new institutions, such as the $3.4-million "SunChips Business Incubator." To help spark Greenburg's economic revival, the incubator offers low-cost office space and technical assistance to sole practitioners like lawyers and designers as well as entrepreneurial business start-ups. Frito-Lay (a division of PepsiCo) donated $1 million toward the building costs; state and federal funding covered much of the rest; actor Leonardo DiCaprio contributed $400,000.
"Greensburg's tax base was literally blown away," says Jeanette Siemens, the director of economic development for Kiowa County. "Without outside resources, I don't know what we would have done."
The $2.95-million city hall reconstruction offers a case study in how Greensburg's eco-conscious civic revival is being financed. Along with private donations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Rural Development program made a $900,000 grant for the project; $1,188,525 came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA); $185,803, from the city itself; and $282,000 from insurance proceeds. The Kansas Division of Emergency Management committed $158,469 to the project. (Although the state may retract some funding commitments due to a severe budget crunch, reports indicate that with completion so near, this is unlikely to derail the building's completion.)