Sedan, Kansas: A Town that Invests in Itself
[imgbelt img=dt_ybrCROP.jpg]This small city in southeast Kansas has an ambitious plan for a new library to serve as a center for learning, communication and community activities. If history is any judge, they’ll pull it off, thanks to vision and careful stewardship of local resources.
Julianne CouchThe picturesque downtown of Sedan, Kansas, includes the “Yellow Brick Road,” one of the community’s numerous fundraising initiatives. A new library could require fundraising as much as $1 million.
They’ve had visions before, like the one to sell beige bricks bearing the name of the purchaser, laying them in the downtown sidewalks and calling it a Yellow Brick Road. (They’ve sold more than 11,000 of them.) Like removing the garbage from the creek bed that runs through town and having a naming contest for the new improved ditch (now called The Hollow). Like painting rusty, grungy looking fire hydrants a cheerful yellow, and just as cheerfully repainting them red when they learned that yellow signifies information about the volume of water flow to the town’s volunteer fire fighters.
Now this group of visionary community volunteers has decided the town needs an improved library. Make that a library and resource center in a new building designed by American General Steel. Currently, Sedan has about as many library books as it has “yellow” bricks. Judy Tolbert, Nita Jones, Sue Kill and other community leaders recently explained this to me over lunch at Safari Mark’s. This restaurant just opened in Sedan’s historic hotel. In the adjoining bar, Safari Mark himself was preparing a tableau of African wildlife he’d personally hunted. Thus the nickname, and from there, the name of the restaurant.
It isn’t enough to have books in the library, Tolbert said. Instead, the library, which is in the fundraising stage, will have multiple uses. “The project has potential to unite the community and area,” she said. “There will be a community safe room so that the next time the tornado siren blows, residents won’t have to shelter in church basements hoping the steeples don’t collapse on their heads.” It will have two meeting rooms and 20 computers. These can be used by library patrons, adults studying for high school equivalency exams and nursing-home residents who can visit the library in small groups to use computers. There will be a full kitchen where area experts can teach classes about canning and preserving food grown in the community garden that will be located on library grounds.
Julianne CouchJudy Tolbert, sitting next to real estate broker Dick Jones, grew up near Sedan and returned after working in cities around the region. She said she loves the passion and enthusiasm that the town’s visionaries bring to community projects.
And—above all— the library will have restrooms. The current library shares space with a title company, and the restrooms are located in that business. That means a rather significant disruption to titling activities any time a small child in the library heeds the call.
Sedan may be a town of dwindling resources and a population that has dropped by 228 people since 1990. Its glory days were built on oil extraction, but that resource is close to being played out. Now its economy relies more on farming, ranching and tourism from white-tail deer hunting. So even though a key economic resource is disappearing, the people who made money from it are investing wealth back into their community.
At present, the new library exists only on paper. The project is being developed by the library board, of which Tolbert is a member. The financing is being funneled through the Sedan Area Foundation, of which she is also a member.
Tolbert’s involvement on multiple community boards and committees is something small-town residents are accustomed to. Sue Kill, who has long been involved with economic development in Sedan and Chautauqua County, helped me sort out some of the key organizations. The Sedan Area Foundation was organized in 1996 as a nonprofit organization to accept donations for specific projects or for the benefit of the community. The Sedan Area Economic Development Committee was also formed as a nonprofit to promote economic development and cultural enrichment for the city and area.
The library board has purchased a residential lot that was donated to the Sedan Area Foundation. They’ve also purchased the lot next door from private individuals, where the parking lot and community gardens will go.
The library board had adequate funds for these purchases but needed approval from the city council, which they received unanimously. Local newspaper publisher and editor Rudy Taylor covered that meeting. He lives in a nearby small town that he said has been trying for years to build a new library for its community. They’ve been raising funds through bean dinners and bake sales, but it has been slow going, he told me.
“Sedan is different,” he said. “There are foundation members who are very wealthy. Judy brought them along to the city council meeting, and said ‘We don’t want to ask tax payers for help. We just need your cooperation.’ ”
Julianne CouchNita Jones stands at the counter of Safari Joe’s restaurant, named for the owner’s interest in wild game, featured throughout the establishment. Jones’ love of Sedan inspired Judy Tolbert to get involved with community-building projects.