West Liberty’s tornado recovery plan a model for other towns

May 11, 2013

Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Morgan County’s strategic plan for rebuilding from a March 2012 tornado includes encouraging super energy-efficient construction of new homes and commercial buildings to lower operating costs. Habitat for Humanity has already built several such homes in Morgan and neighboring Rowan counties. This one was under construction in January. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Each time I have visited West Liberty since the devastating tornado, people have expressed determination to rebuild. But they didn’t just want to put things back the way they were; they wanted to use the disaster to reposition their community for the future.

The Morgan County seat had been hurting for years before the twister, which killed six people on March 2, 2012. West Liberty was like so many other small towns that have struggled to adapt to the loss of cash crops and factories.

Last week, after more than a year of study and work, West Liberty leaders unveiled a new strategic plan for their community. It is a creative, forward-looking plan designed to attract national attention and support. If successful, it could serve as a model for struggling small towns throughout Kentucky and across America. (Click here to download a copy of the plan.)

“I’m very excited about it,” said Hank Allen, CEO of Commercial Bank in West Liberty and president of the Morgan County Chamber of Commerce. “There is such a will to rebuild, to not only get back to where we were but to be better than we were.”

One key aspect of the plan follows the lead of Greensburg, Kansas, which was wiped out by a 2007 tornado and attracted national attention by rebuilding using the latest energy-efficient technology.

West Liberty’s energy-efficient reconstruction plans include replacement houses with “passive” design and construction, which can cut energy costs as much as 70 percent over conventional construction. Habitat for Humanity has already built several such homes in the area.

The downtown business district also would be rebuilt using energy-efficient construction, including a geothermal loop that many buildings could share to lower their heating and cooling costs.

Allen says he thinks that will be one of the biggest factors in recreating a viable downtown. Rent was cheap in the old buildings the tornado blew away. But reconstruction will be expensive, pushing rents beyond what many mom-and-pop businesses can afford.

Commercial Bank is kicking off the geothermal loop as part of its headquarters reconstruction. Allen said designs are almost complete for a new bank building that should be certified LEED Gold. The pre-tornado bank building cost about $4,000 to $5,000 a month to heat and cool, but Allen estimates the new one will cost about $1,500 a month.

The bank building will include about 1,800 square feet of incubator space on its first floor to help small local businesses get back on their feet, Allen said.

The strategic plan also calls for encouraging downtown to be rebuilt with mixed-use structures housing businesses, offices, restaurants and apartments. That would create a more lively downtown with lower rents because of more efficient use of space.

Plans also call for installing free wireless service downtown to attract businesses and people in a region where wi-fi availability is now limited.

The strategic plan’s economic development initiatives have a big focus on eco-tourism, built around Morgan County’s natural beauty and local assets such as the Licking River, Cave Run and Paintsville lakes, and nearby destinations such as the Red River Gorge.

There would be encouragement for entrepreneurs to start businesses focusing on kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, canoeing, fishing and hunting. Plans also call for developing walking and biking trails along the Licking River through West Liberty.

Other economic development ideas in the plan also focus on existing strengths, such as trying to use the local ambulance service and hospital to develop new methods for rural health-care delivery.

The strategic plan grew out of a partnership among the city, Morgan County, local businesses, Morehead State University’s Innovation and Commercialization Center and the nonprofit Regional Technology and Innovation Center.

Midwest Clean Energy Enterprise LLC of Lexington was a consultant on the process. Jonathan Miller, a clean-energy advocate and former state treasurer, has been retained to help raise money nationally for the effort by promoting it as a model for small-town revitalization.

The Morgan County Community Fund, an affiliate of the Blue Grass Community Foundation, has been set up to help collect and distribute donations for the rebuilding effort.

These efforts got a big jump-start in February, when Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced a package of about $30 million in federal, state and private money for various rebuilding projects.

“That really opened people’s eyes to what is possible,” Allen said of the financial package. “As a community, we must think really, really large. But we have a long way to go.”


Habitat needs volunteer builders for Morgan, Menifee reconstruction

January 29, 2013

Greg Dike, right, executive director of the Morehead Area Habitat for Humanity group, helps build an interior wall for a house near Morehead with a group of volunteers from Lexington on Jan. 19.  Photos by Tom Eblen

 

MOREHEAD — When Greg Dike became the director — and only employee — of Habitat for Humanity’s Rowan County unit more than two years ago, he thought he knew the mission. Then that mission got a whole lot bigger.

A cluster of tornados tore through Eastern Kentucky last March 2, killing 22 people. Eight died in neighboring Morgan and Menifee counties and dozens more were left homeless.

“When the tornadoes came, we decided to expand our service area,” said Dike, 61, whose previous careers included electrical engineer, United Methodist minister and emergency room nurse.

Dike figured that Habitat could provide valuable help in storm recovery for a couple of reasons. Habitat, an ecumenical Christian ministry, builds houses that low-income working people can afford to buy, in part through their own labors. Plus, the three-county Morehead Area unit of Habitat specializes in super energy-efficient housing.

Morehead Area Habitat’s most common house has 1,100 square feet of living space on one floor and costs about $45,000 to build. Through smart design and lots of insulation — including a foundation insulated below the frost line — each house has an average heating and cooling cost of only about $12 a month. A poorly insulated house or mobile home often has a monthly utility bill of $200 or more.

So far, in addition to its regular work in Rowan County, Habitat has built one house each in Morgan and Menifee counties for storm victims, Dike said. Six more are under construction in Morgan and two more in Menifee, with seven additional houses planned in those counties.

Judge Executives Tim Conley in Morgan County and James Trimble in Menifee County have been very supportive, and have helped Habitat identify building sites.

“They see Habitat as a way to get people into quality housing,” Dike said.

Because some people who lost their homes in the storms were elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to take on even a small mortgage, as typical Habitat clients do, the Kentucky Housing Corp. and other organizations and foundations have provided several hundred thousand dollars in grants to build homes. The state Habitat organization also has been very helpful, Dike said.

Materials for each house cost about $35,000, so the total price is kept low largely through volunteer labor. While Habitat is always happy to receive cash donations, Dike said, his biggest need is regular construction volunteers.

Dike is working with Diane James of Lexington, a longtime Habitat volunteer and former construction manager, to recruit and organize groups of regular volunteers from Central Kentucky, which is only an hour or two away by car.

The ideal volunteers are men or women who can gather several friends together and commit to one or two work days a month, ideally on the same house so they can become familiar with it.

“I think there are a lot of people out there with skills,” Dike said. “We’re not looking for award-winning carpenters; just people with some skills and common sense.”

Dike and James hopes to hear from churches, businesses or just groups of friends who think they could commit to a series of work days over the next few months. Those interested in volunteering can email James at buildwestliberty@gmail.com or call Dike at (606) 776-0022.

“It’s an easy trip, and we get a lot of work done in a day,” James said. “Most people have really enjoyed it.”

That’s certainly what I found earlier this month, when I accompanied James, Dike and a group of volunteers from several Lexington Disciples of Christ churches who were framing interior walls on a Habitat house near Morehead.

“I just love doing it,” said Bettye Burns, a retiree who volunteered through her church for a women-only Habitat build in the early 1990s and has been doing it ever since.

“It’s fun, and I’ve learned so much,” Burns said. “I credit Diane for me not getting empty-nest syndrome when my kids grew up. I was so busy helping her build houses, I didn’t have time for that.”

Steve Seithers, who began volunteering through his church in 1992, said he enjoys the fellowship and sense of accomplishment he gets from Habitat work. “Plus, it helps make a difference in people’s lives,” Seithers said. “This is something I can do, so I’m doing it.”

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