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.
"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."