Towns only have one chance to make a first impression
What are the first impressions of visitors to our communities? Do they notice buildings in disrepair and tall grass? What about signs? Can they find their way through our cities?
This past week, Ron Wilson, director of Huck Boyd Institute, Kansas State University, Manhattan, held community meetings to reveal information about the impressions communities make to outsiders.
“First Impressions” program was designed to bring outside community leaders to communities which they are not familiar to experience their first impressions of that community. Team members pose as visitors, vacationers, shoppers, and prospective business owners.
The five-member team looked at Marion County as a whole and then each individual community. They looked for signs, general appearances (proper maintenance), and other strengths and weaknesses.
For the cities of Hillsboro and Marion, the team provided a more detailed report.
Here are those results.
The team noted “pretty grassland” but not much signage other then small, green, highway signs. When coming from Butler County, members noticed Burns Co-op before seeing a sign, indicating they were in Marion County.
When they entered the county from the north, they noticed the “Wake Up in Marion County” sign with a cup of coffee.
Cell phone coverage was sporadic in rural areas but overall the team found the rural areas to be typical of counties in the region with little setting the landscape apart.
Comments: One members of the team commented the rooster welcome sign was “neat.”
Strengths were Burns Café, community center, street signs, and city park.
Weaknesses was tall grass on residential properties.
Suggestions were repairing of the “Kansas Pride Community” sign and “spruce up” the “Welcome to Burns” sign.
Comments: It is a nice community. Donahue Corp. definitely is an asset to the town. The team noticed an active co-op, gas station, and farm supply business. The Red Barn Café looked “interesting” but members weren’t sure if it was open.
Neighborhoods were attractive and quiet. And a Bull Durham metal sculpture was interesting.
Suggestions were to paint downtown buildings which are not in bad shape, put a mural on an unpainted side of a building, create a sister city relationship with Durham, N.C., and join the PRIDE program.
Comments: “Cute limestone welcome sign.”
One team member wondered if there was a community theme related to cowboy boots since ceramic boot planters were on porches and businesses.
Strengths: Residential properties and yards were well-kept, historical buildings were impressive, the park pavilion was attractive, mercantile business looked intriguing, and a bank was located in town.
A business owner assisted a team member and was very helpful and knowledgeable about the town’s history.
Weaknesses: City streets were rough.
Comments: “Goessel has many, many assets compared to most small towns.” It is a “pleasant” community. The Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church near Goessel intrigued members. The school and city buildings also were attractive. The Mennonite Heritage Museum adds a lot to the community but needs an upgrade.
A downtown grocery store also was a strength.
Suggestions were to use more signs to get people off K-15 and into town, repaint the mural, take care of old brick buildings, build on to the Mennonite heritage, and develop the corner on K-15. The team suggested a visitor’s center, additional landscaping, and signage.
Perception before visiting community: The team new Hillsboro was an agriculture community with a Mennonite heritage. It also was familiar with the annual Arts & Crafts Show, Marion Reservoir, and Tabor College.
When the team approached the community, it noticed signs promoting school achievements which shows community pride, a “Shop in Hillsboro” billboard, and an attractive avenue/corridor from U.S.-56. However, some billboards were difficult to read because there was too much information.
Comments about the general appearance was the community was clean, variety of businesses, new housing, and yards and homes maintained. The team rated the industrial park as “very good.”
The parks were attractive as were the public park, golf course, and swimming pool. Schools were well-maintained and up-to-date, as was the infrastructure of sidewalks and lighting.
It was noted some roads needed resurfacing.
The most positive observations were an adequate welcome sign, attractive downtown district, active business community, positive connection with U.S.-56, close proximity to lakes, and museum and recreation complex.
Recommendations included enticements to pull people from U.S.-56, build on assets of museum, pool, and golf course, and cleanup old buildings.
Comments: Property maintenance was all right, buildings were in good shape, city hall was closed, new community building and “nice” city park, employment opportunities, and community events are scheduled.
The team suggested the town take advantage of the highway by recruiting a convenience store or gas station and dress-up downtown buildings and windows.
Comments: A team member called it “a lost community.” They noted destructive tree damage from an ice storm, boarded-up businesses, a lot with trash and debris, some properties needed cleaned up and mowed, dilapidated buildings should be demolished, no welcome signs, Santa Fe Trail signs were hard to find, and pay phone did not work.
They did notice attractive buildings in the center of town but there were no signs. There also were employment opportunities and a restaurant.
Comments: A highway sign was attractive as was an entrance sign with native stone and wood. A Lions Club is active. The community appeared to be clean and quiet with a “nice” park. The team noticed grindstones for milling wheat, an old, brick school sign, and an attractive church.
Suggestions were to cleanup abandoned buildings, “liven-up” the downtown, and join the PRIDE program.
The team’s perception before visiting the community was its knowledge of the rivalry between communities and great farming area.
The three-person team expected a sleepy town with few investments being made. The downtown area was as expected although some of architecture is exceptional although in need of repair.
Positive comments were large sign off U.S.-50, beautiful drive, clean roads, and when entering the city from the west, there was a clear sense of arrival.
Negative comments included little signage in town, junk equipment on north side of town entrance, only direction from U.S.-56 was a small, green, state highway sign which sent the team on an unattractive street, and maintenance properties at city entrances.
The most positive features were flowering trees, rivers, old architecture, attractive store fronts, “nice” people, a “wonderful” park, lakes but no signs to get to them, new auditorium, and courthouse and city hall are located downtown.
Recommendations were to incorporate a river walk and bird watching photo opportunities, build on status as county seat, improve streetscape, add directional signs to business district and other key features, draw traffic from U.S.-56 and the lakes, establish a downtown historic district, bring commerce to the downtown sidewalks, convert side streets to brick streets, improve property maintenance, and liven-up downtown business signage and displays.
Comments: Team members liked the lighted limestone sign and were impressed with the designation of being a Kansas Main Street community.
Strengths: Beautiful and charming old homes with well-maintained lawns. City hall was easy to locate and the downtown was “wonderful.”
Weaknesses: A green and white entry sign was attractive but difficult to read.
Comments: No income-generating properties, no employment opportunities, and poor property maintenance. A pay phone did not work and railroad crossing arms were malfunctioning. Street signs need to be replaced and the street names were “boring.” Signs by U.S.-77 were not painted and advertising was not current.
On a positive note, the entrance sign and benches were attractive and the city park was pleasant.
Suggestions were to fix railroad crossings, clean up properties, and window-dress downtown.
Comments: The town was clean and public bathrooms provided towels and soap. Pay phone worked and properties were well-maintained. There are employment opportunities and income-producing properties. However, the city sign was not impressive.
“Folks on the street were friendly,” a team member said.
Roads into town were deteriorated while city streets were in good shape.
Suggestions were to construct a better entry sign and re-use a school building on the east edge of town.