West Liberty rebuilding effort to partner with Clinton group to help raise money

A crane with Frederick & May Construction set a form Thursday to erect a concrete wall for the Morgan County Transit Center in West Liberty. Photo taken on Thursday, June 19, 2014.
A crane with Frederick & May Construction set a form Thursday to erect a concrete wall for the Morgan County Transit Center in West Liberty. Photo taken on Thursday, June 19, 2014. Lexington Herald-Leader

WEST LIBERTY — A program to resurrect tornado-ravaged West Liberty will partner with the Clinton Global Initiative America to find more money, particularly in building energy-efficient housing, officials said Thursday.

The first phase of a program called Rebuilding West Liberty involves a $7.9 million plan for 48 new townhouses. In addition, fundraising efforts were to begin Thursday to solicit $500,000 from donors to build four energy-efficient, single-family homes for low-income residents displaced by the 2012 storm.

[Complete coverage of the tornadoes in West Liberty, including stories, photo and video]

The four houses are to include solar and geothermal systems that will eliminate utility bills and provide a national model for an energy-efficient future.

"Our first priority, of course, is to rebuild our town," West Liberty Mayor Mark Walter said. "We are excited to serve as a model for the whole country."

More energy-efficient houses are planned, said Bobby Clark of Midwest Clean Energy Enterprise of Lexington, a consultant in the reconstruction project.

"The Clinton Global folks are very excited about the idea of a town that's been destroyed, that can come back and create a national model that can be replicated around the country," Clark said.

The $7.9 million was raised, in part, through the sale of federal tax credits to investors who may apply those credits to their federal tax liabilities, Clark said.

A fundraiser was to be held Thursday night at the home of Louisville philanthropist Christy Brown. Clark said he wasn't sure how long it would take to raise the $500,000. Once the money is raised, construction of the four houses is expected to take 90 days, said Sherry Farley, CEO of Frontier Housing, another partner in the project.

Meanwhile, a 48-unit, multifamily, energy-efficient development of townhouses is financed and under construction. It will replace the Frederick Place apartment complex that was destroyed by the tornado. The complex is expected to be completed by next spring.

The rebuilding project will be managed by the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, a Berea-based nonprofit that provides affordable housing to those in need.

In March 2012, downtown West Liberty was destroyed by a EF-3 tornado. Seven people in Morgan County were killed, and the storm caused $50 million in damage in the county.

"In one day, West Liberty lost 200 addresses," said Hank Allen, president and CEO of Commercial Bank. "In a small town, that was very devastating."

West Liberty looked to Greensburg, Kan., as a possible template for recovery. On May 4, 2007, an EF-5 tornado leveled 95 percent of Greensburg and killed 11 people.

Greensburg was rebuilt as a cutting-edge, energy-efficient town that would not only save money but attract tourists and worldwide media attention. It would be a living model of a sustainable town of the future.

The strategy paid off. Tourists, civic leaders and journalists come to Greensburg from around the world to see public buildings, homes and businesses that were rebuilt with the latest energy-efficient designs and technology.

Those behind the Morgan County project hope to do the same.

"We have many families in the region that had to go to the bank to borrow money to pay their electric bills," Clark said. "If you don't have money to pay your electric bills, how can you pay for health care?

"So we believe that energy efficiency is a pathway to healthier communities, so that families can have the resources they need to eat, work and get the health care you need."

West Liberty's strategic plan seeks to accomplish other goals, such as having free Wi-Fi downtown to attract businesses, and becoming an eco-tourism destination that capitalizes on nearby Cave Run Lake, the Red River Gorge, and hunting and fishing assets.

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.

Former state Treasurer Jonathan Miller, a clean-energy advocate, was retained to raise money nationally for the effort by promoting it as a model for small-town revitalization. (Miller also was deputy chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Energy during the first Clinton-Gore administration.)

Through Miller and Midwest Clean Energy Enterprise, the effort applied to become a partner of Clinton Global Initiative America. Established in June 2011 by former President Bill Clinton, CGI America brings together leaders in business and government to create jobs, stimulate economic growth, foster innovation, and support workforce development in the United States.

Next week, CGI America will be in Denver for its fourth annual meeting. Miller and Clark plan to meet there with others who have been through rebuilding efforts and to find sources of money to finance items on the West Liberty strategic plan.

"It's an opportunity to network and meet the people who could contribute dollars for the projects," Clark said.

One item that could help sell the rebuilding effort to potential funding sources is a kiosk at the rebuilt Commercial Bank that will monitor energy use from other energy-efficient sites around West Liberty.

"The Clinton folks got excited about it because one of the biggest challenges about energy efficiency ... is that the appraiser and some banks don't properly value the energy efficiency," Clark said. "We see it as a strategic part of ... what we're trying to do."

The kiosk also might be used in curriculum to teach students in West Liberty and elsewhere about energy, he said.

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