New structures up, but old buildings pose a challenge

Thursday, May 13, 2004

While criss-crossing the Golden Plains in recent days on picture-taking assignments, the Gazette's publisher has had a windshield view of 27 towns and more than 500 miles of highways in Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas.

From St. Francis on the southwestern edge of the area to Elwood on the northeast, and from Imperial on the northwest to Norton on the southeast, the publisher has drawn two vastly different impressions.

First, on the positive side, are the improvements taking place. Sprinkled thoughout the area, and that is supposed to be a pun, are a large number of new irrigation systems, most sporting the blue-and-white Valley name. We would guess there are two main reasons for the center pivot upsurge. One is the opening of the Valley manufacturing plant in McCook, giving nearby access to the field-circling machines. The other is the great need for water on the area's cropland.

Another impressive sight is the emergence of ethanol plants alongside U.S. Highway 6-34. What a great addition they are. Showing us the promise of things to come is the Trenton Agri Products LLC plant. Already in operation, the multi-million dollar plant east of Trenton is buzzing with activity. First phase developments are also in progress in Cambridge and at the Perry site west of McCook, putting this area at the forefront of an industry greatly needed in this era of increasing energy costs.

Also on the positive side -- in this spring of 2004 -- is how well many of the surviving businesses are doing in towns throughout the area. Despite large population losses and the prolonged drought, a number of small town businesses are continuing to thrive. Co-ops, car dealers and repair shops were especially busy during the publisher's visits, and downtown shopping areas -- especially in Oxford, Oberlin and Imperial -- were abuzz with activity.

In other words -- despite the considerable challenges we face -- this area is carrying on business at an active rate. However, because of the dramatic loss of population -- which has stripped the area of more than 20,000 people in the last 70 years -- there are major concerns.

The main one -- and this pertains to every community -- are the old buildings which stand idle in both the business and residential areas.

Many of the structures are dilapidated, slowly crumbling due to disuse. It's a pity. Once such an important part of small town life, these aging structures simply have no reason for being. In many cases they stand side-by-side with new, modern well-kept homes and businesses.

It's something, each town, in its own way, is facing. Indianola is among those taking action, tearing out stately old buildings in the business district and replacing them with a fire barn.

Parting with the past is hard to do, but as we deal with the continuing effects of population loss, one of the greatest challenges for rural towns is what to do with old, unused buildings.

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