One thing that's struck me during this trip along Route 50 is that we hide our cities and towns behind unattractive curtains -- the assortment of commercial strips, factories, and hodge podge of uses that serve as the entry ways into our communities.
As with many places, that's the case in Emporia, Kansas.
But once you get behind the curtains, you'll find a thriving and attractive small city. Emporia's population is just 26,500 -- but it boasts:
-- a zoo (I'm told that Emporia's the smallest city in the U.S. with an accredited zoo);
-- delightful parks and ballfields;
-- a strong regional medical center;
-- a state college campus;
-- neighborhood housing for all income ranges; and
-- several well-designed industrial parks bringing in jobs and commerce.
I'm setting out a few photos to give you a bit of a feel for Emporia -- I had to include a railroad shot since the BNSF main line is a constant presence in the city, running as many 90 trains a day through the center of town. My thanks to City Engineer Keith Beatty for taking the time to drive me up and down Emporia. As Keith put it, "Emporia's a very unique small city. Many people don't quite realize what they've got here."
Emporia also has a downtown main street that's more than holding its own. Commercial Street stretches 12 blocks through the heart of the city. It runs from the Emporia College campus on the north end (see photo above left) to past the BNSF railroad tracks on the south. While there are surely a number of buildings on Commercial Street that could use some work, and a few gaps in the streetscape, there are many more attractive buildings in active use.
I'm setting out part of a panoramic photo I took at the corner of Commercial Street & 8th Avenue -- click on this link to run the full 360 degree panorama. You'll see on the corners Pupusa Plus; a karate/dance/gymnastics studio; the First Presbyterian Church; and the historic Granada Theater.
I met with Vickie Hayes-Walworth, who served for the past five years as Executive Director of the Granada. The Granada first opened on October 3, 1929. A movie palace of the first order, it had seating for 1,400, and was one of three theaters in town.
Badly damaged in a 1952 fire, the theater reopened with minor repairs until closing down in 1982. This left a major gap on Commercial Street -- and for the community.
[photo of Vicki with Dr. Duane Henrikson who has helped lead the citizen-based effort to restore the Granada].
For the past ten years, the citizens of Emporia have been working to restore and reopen the theater.
Bones Ownbey, who has been on site surpervising the rehab work since last August, gave us a tour of the building. It's a remarkable place, requiring an enormous amount of work to restore it to its original condition. Much of the work comes from volunteers, including some who have put in countless hours recreating the plaster casts that adorned the theater niches & its proscenium.
As Bones recounted, "the decorative plaster really caught me, I've never seen anything ornate like this." And he should know, given the extensive experience he's had with all kinds of restoration projects.
Bones also pointed out the 500 seats he recently acquired for the balcony seating. He then told me that in the balcony in the old days, one section was for Mexicans only, another for blacks. He's promised a Hispanic couple from town who remember those times that they'll have front row seats on opening day for the new Granada.
The community has been generous in its financial support. A $2.8 million capital campaign was successful. No city money has been involved (though the city has helped by installing the main water line, and waiving the building permit fee).
As Vicki explained, however, no one expected the work to take as long as it has. But dealing with many voluntary, in-kind contributions -- such as for the plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning work -- has slowed the process. Yet those contributions have been essential given the costs that would otherwise be involved.
When the theater reopens, it will provide a magnificent setting for a variety of community functions, from theater, to movies, to wedding receptions.
p.s. one other city-sponsored project that has helped downtown businesses is what Kevin Hanlin, the city's zoning adminstrator called an on-site code team. Basically, a team made up of the city engineer, a building codes supervisor, a representative from the fire department, and one volunteer local architect will meet -- on a voluntary basis -- with anyone thinking of opening a business. This has been quite helpful in identifying potential issues with the building before any investment is made. As Kevin explained, "people benefit from knowing what's going to be required up front."