In Inman, Kansas - population 1,033 - lives an evangelist, not for the Lord, but for the prairie state in which she lives. Marci Penner says she started the Kansas Sampler Foundation to make Kansans proud of Kansas! The foundation's festivals, explorer's club, and newsletter are all devoted to saving this piece of America's rural culture. VOA's Ted Landphair talked with Marci Penner in the back room of a little roadhouse where she had stopped for chicken-fried steak and iced tea.
In the late 1980s, Marci Penner's father stopped farming and followed his dream to be a photographer. He took photographs across Kansas and produced three richly illustrated coffee-table books. Soon thereafter, Ms. Penner returned from a job in Philadelphia and joined her dad in producing guidebooks and slide shows about the state that became the genesis of the Kansas Sampler Foundation.
"We would go to a town and say, 'We're doing a guidebook. It's free to be in it. What do you have in this town that we should include?' And a typical response was, 'Oh, this town has nothing. Go to another town.' And after awhile, that became pretty depressing," recalls Ms. Penner. "It became clear that Kansans needed a shot of pride and needed to learn who they were, what they were all about [...].
"It bothered me so much that I just wanted to be more upbeat, find the positive. In my prior life, I was an elementary guidance counselor, and that's often about raising self-esteem, which is what I think needed to happen with the small towns as well."
Marci Penner says good chemistry among residents and a steel will to survive can perk up what would otherwise be dying small towns.
"Here's an example: To keep a grocery store open, you need to be able to order $7,500 worth of product off the truck each week," she points out. "So think of the size of our towns. Can they get $7,500 worth sold in a week? No. So, do you know what some of our towns do? They go together with another grocery store. In Northwest Kansas, there's eleven stores that go together to be able to meet that minimum."
I asked Marci Penner to think of one town that's a sparkling success story, and another that will most likely dry up and blow away.
"That was easy for me to think of the successful town," she said. "And I'll tell you that the population is about 190. This is a town that about twenty years ago was listed in the top ten of towns soon likely to be ghost towns. But there was one person who moved into town, and he opened an antique business. And he had a vision that if all the abandoned stores in this two-block town would be filled with this niche business that this town had a chance to thrive.
"Still, it was a town that was almost dead. It took about ten years for this man's dream to happen. But eventually, not only did those abandoned buildings in that two-block area become filled with that niche, but they took it a step further. They developed a nostalgic look to go with it. So it wasn't just the niche, but they created sort of a pathway to an emotion for people that might come into the town.
"It was a snowball effect. They're going to make it.
"Segue to the town that's very bleak - a similar population. They have buildings that are boarded up. One of the two businesses that are open in town, it's very dirty. And to me, that's the key, because there's not pride in that one business. And so I know right now, I feel, that that town probably won't make it.
"The other sign I see is that these buildings are not just abandoned, but they're falling down. And every day, people that live in that town drive by those. It would be better if they were gone. So they have a constant reminder about their demise."
Marci Penner says Kansas cannot expect to become much of a tourist destination. It has no majestic Rocky Mountains like neighboring Colorado, no oceanfront, no great theme park, no historical magnet like a New Orleans or Philadelphia. It offers, instead, sweeping tallgrass prairies, endless wheatfields, and a hefty sprinkling of small-town shops and characters. Ms. Penner says it's a place for explorers, not tourists - curious people willing to take some time, get to know townfolk and farmers, and spend a some money to keep little towns alive.
Hence a Kansas Sampler Foundation's project with a most unusual name: Lizard Lips.
"Lizard Lips is a [combination] convenience store, bait shop, grill, and deli all in one about a mile [about a kilometer and a half] north of a town of three hundred people in Southeast Kansas. The biggest asset over there is a reservoir," says Ms. Penner.
"The Kansas Explorers' Club decided to pick one place in the state to use as an example about how lots of little money spent in a place can make a big difference. So we started an effort that in the end just became known as 'Lizard Lips.'
"Our plan was to encourage a thousand people to go to this place and spend five dollars. That's all they had to do was spend $5. And in the end, then, that would of course become $5,000, which would mean that store wouldn't have to take out their annual $5,000 loan from the bank to pay their employees during the slow time.
"Well, not only did it help Lizard Lips, but it also made everybody who went in there and spent money feel real good, too. So it was a win-win effort, and people continue to go to Lizard Lips.
Of course $5 here and $5 there likely won't save a town that has lost its school, or its grocery store, or its will to survive. But Marci Penner keeps plugging away to pump up Kansans' pride. The Kansas Sampler Foundation has started what you might say is almost literally a grassroots network of rural community leaders aimed at strengthening small towns all across Kansas. It's called "We Kan." KAN.