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Small-Town Renaissance: Rising Leaders Help Two Kansas Communities Defy Expectations


By Dale Hogg, Kansas Reflector


CHASE/PAWNEE ROCK, Kan. — There’s a commonly held belief that small, rural Kansas communities are evaporating from the windswept plains, plagued by a dwindling, aging population, and haunted by pressures of a modern world.

Don’t tell that to the residents of Chase, population 390 in Rice County, and Pawnee Rock, population 190 in Barton County. Long dismissed, even mocked, as wide spots along U.S. Highway 56, folks there are making their stand, spurred by an influx of new families.

“We’re proud of where we are from,” said Chase Mayor Tom Kizzar. “There’s not much left, but we are going to go down swinging. We’re doing alright. We’re trying.”

The towns were written off as an afterthought, but with the help of rising community leaders, they are bucking the trend.

This new sign welcomes visitors to Chase. It was part of an effort by city leaders to rejuvenate the Rice County Community. (Dale Hogg for Kansas Reflector)

Chasing a vision

For some, the sign arching over the north entrance to Chase may not seem like much. But for those who call it home, it is a sign of a newfound sense of community pride and of better things to come.

“We decided it was time to do something to save our town,” Kizzar said. “Small towns are drying up, and we didn’t want to see that here.”

On the western edge of Rice County, the vestiges of Chase’s oil patch past remain along the highway that cuts through it. Also, along that stretch are twisted shelter belts being tamed and abandoned businesses coming back to life.

The same is true on Main Street. Cleaned-up properties join a new plaza with picnic tables, shade structures and a mural that is under development.

“We had a couple younger guys get on the city council,” said Councilman Jarett Mermis.

He spoke during a council meeting the night of March 4 during which a host of civic improvements were discussed.

“We wanted to see the community grow,” he said.

The younger council members want to bring more amenities to the town to lure more young families.

The town also has seen three new businesses in the past year.

“We want to improve the appearance of Main Street and the rest of the community,” said Councilman Bill Patton.

This new Chase fire station was built almost entirely with community donations and stands as a symbol of the town’s resurgence. (Dale Hogg for Kansas Reflector)

Another jewel in the downtown crown is the new $200,000 fire station built with community donations. Also, in the past few years, there have been improvements to City Park, community storm shelters near the school and a city-maintained ballfield.

And, last year, they resurrected the once-annual Chase Fest, a celebration that includes a parade and other activities.

“We want to get people more involved,” said Councilman Mitch Light. “We hope this will help them feel more pride in the community.

A new splash pad at City Park will go out for bids in April with plans for completion this fall. Chase received a $407,000 Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Kansas Department of Commerce. The city will kick in $135,000 in local funds.

This idea first came up about a decade ago, but then the one-two punch for small Kansas communities — a downturn in both the farming and oil economies — forced it onto the backburner.

Kizzar was mayor then, and now sees a younger changing of the guard championing the community progress he pushed for all those years ago.

Improvements to the sewer, a $3.6 million project, are also in the works, but there is no timeline, city officials said. The city hopes to cobble together Kansas Department of Health and Environment Revolving Loan Fund money and a $650,000 CDBG to pay for the endeavor.

The town of Pawnee Rock is viewed from the Pawnee Rock Kansas State Historical Site north of the community. It commemorates the Santa Fe pioneers. (Dale Hogg for Kansas Reflector)

Solid as a rock

On a hilltop overlooking the tiny burg of Pawnee Rock stands the Pawnee Rock State Historic Site, a memorial to the pioneers who passed through the region while traversing the Santa Fe Trail. They sought a better life, many stopping nearby to scratch their livings out of the unforgiving plains sod.

Banding together to form a committee, residents here now hope to harness that spirit as they bring the town back to life.

“We’re a small group that works with the city and that cares about the city,” said Denise Penn, the new president of the Pawnee Rock Revitalization Committee.

The committee loosely formed a couple years ago has been formalized with a mission statement and vision statement, and now looks to move things forward.

She also said there have been young families with children getting involved with this initiative, and “that’s been great.”

Thanks to an infusion of $177,000 from the Barton County Commission and the Great Bend-based Golden Belt Community Foundation, along with local contributions last year, much has been possible, she said. In 2023, they spent $146,000 on their efforts.

“We have a lot going on,” she said. Through fundraising efforts and volunteer manpower, they have constructed a new gazebo and new playground equipment in City Park.

Throughout 2024, they have a slew of activities planned, from a chili cookoff to a 5K run to a car show, all to raise money to continue with their work. They are eying a new sidewalk around the park and the addition of handicapped-accessible playground features.

A new community billboard in front of City Hall provides a place for these and other events to be advertised.

Relocated to Pawnee Rock in the 1980s, the Pawnee Rock Depot is used as a community center and is home to a monthly Saturday community breakfast. (Dale Hogg for Kansas Reflector)

Now, they are working with Kansas Main Street through the Kansas Department of Commerce to help revitalize dilapidated downtown buildings, she said. They may also seek assistance to offer seed money for new businesses.

“We’re starting to see some more community pride,” Penn said.

But she and the committee want to see more civic engagement.

“We have events planned just to bring people out to the park,” she said, noting not everything they do is about raising funds.

And there is the difficult task of clearing blighted properties, making room for new homes and future development.

“I’m glad to see some pride in Pawnee Rock,” said lifetime resident Dean Lakin, noting pride is something the small town has lacked in recent years.

Lakin is not a member of the committee and was skeptical of its efforts at first, but he said he is pleased with its results.

Lakin and his wife, Gretta, were entrusted by the now-defunct local Lions Club to oversee the old train depot building. The club brought the historic structure to Pawnee Rock in the 1980s as a community center and library.

It saw city events, meals for the elderly, and Boy Scout meetings. But the library closed, and the Lions and scouts disbanded, so the club members handed it over to the Lakins for safekeeping.

“Our basic goal is to preserve the depot for its intended purpose,” Lakin said.

They sponsor a monthly Saturday morning community breakfast and rent the facility for private gatherings.

The depot is also the repository for Pawnee Rock school memorabilia, he said. The items were given to the Lions Club after the school closed.

This new gazebo in Pawnee Rock’s City Park was part of an effort to revitalize the community and has become an attraction for local residents and travelers alike. (Dale Hogg for Kansas Reflector)

Looking down the road

Meanwhile, traffic continues to whiz down the highway with most of those behind the wheel not giving either community a second thought. But through Chase’s new gateway and beneath Pawnee Rock’s new gazebo, a growing number of folks know their towns matter.

They are more than dots on a map. They are more than just speed zones.

“We’re excited for it,” Kizzar said of the future.

For Kizzar and company, the efforts are not just about those seated around the council table.

“It’s all for the kids,” he said.

As for Pawnee Rock, Lakin remembers a tree-lined main street when he was a kid. He would have attended Pawnee Rock High School had it not been shuttered when he was an eighth-grader.

He hopes things turn around.

“I say God bless them,” he said. “More power to them. I’d love to see Pawnee Rock grow and succeed.”