It’s a problem every small town across the country faces: blight, in the way of abandoned, worn out and falling down buildings located right in the middle of the town.
Blight is one of the main problems small communities and cities share. Neighborhood blight and the presence of vacant and abandoned properties have profound negative impacts on afflicted communities. Blighted properties decrease surrounding property values, erode the health of local housing markets and business opportunities, pose safety hazards, and reduce local tax revenue.
Kit Carson is no different than any other town as they have their share of abandoned and, to be blunt, eye-soars that people haven’t lived or worked in for decades. But there’s a group in town known as the Kit Carson Rural Development (KCRD) led by Amy Johnson who is having tremendous success in winning the fight over blight in their small town.
Johnson is a one-woman wrecking crew and began, now more than a decade ago, to tear down at least some of the blight that so negatively affected Kit Carson with the hope that there would be opportunity to re-build on a clean, blank slate. It wasn’t always a popular decision to tear down the houses and business buildings that had been standing for decades and decades, but Johnson knew those many structures were too far gone to rehab, so if the problem was going to be addressed, they would have to be torn down before building back.
After years of tearing down—today she is building back in a very big way.
KCRD has already been quite effective in fixing a major housing shortage that had been ongoing for years. Johnson tore down numerous houses and over time, with lots of grant writing and negotiating and begging, she has collected the money needed to build new houses. This year, in the next few months, work will begin on five new two-story housing units that will be built on lots where—you got it—abandoned houses once stood crumbling away through the years.
Right now, Johnson is effectively solving one of the biggest issues Kit Carson faces and that is dealing with old Brownsfield sites that were contaminated with either asbestos or fuel tanks, or both in some cases. Once of those sites have been mitigated and now Johnson is providing new business opportunities in its place.
In approximately 2-3 months a brand new, 4,224 square feet, business hub will be completed located right on the busy Highway 287 and just off Main Street in Kit Carson. The building will contain three spaces including shared workspace and two commercial spaces to rent out for potential businesses.
The shared workspace is particularly intriguing as Johnson says, “There are multiple opportunities and ways people work remotely now. We can assist students who are doing online courses, remote workers, people who are working on collaborative projects and even bring in telehealth and video conferencing for an array of industry needs. Really, the sky is the limit for the shared workspace concept.”
The shared workspace area will take up 1/3 of the large building and will include a large conference room with seating for 10 people. The Kit Carson FFA is constructing the conference table for that room. There are also a couple of small, private offices located off the large open concept workspace area. A kitchen will be available so members or workers can prepare themselves coffee or other drinks and snacks as they work. Local artisans are helping to design the various pieces of furniture that will be the focal point of the shared workspace main room.
Johnson emphasizes, “This is designed to be a very flexible space for all kinds of needs. And the key to its success is the high-speed internet that is being provided by Rebeltec. Because of them we will be able to provide broadband required for the highest level of work needed.”
Vap Construction out of Atwood, KS is a family-owned business that Johnson says had been unbelievable to work with. They are organized, efficient and great about communicating with Johnson when there’s a problem. The building has gone up very quickly and is scheduled to be completed in around 60 days. “That is,” according to Johnson, “If the wind stops blowing!”
The site where the new business hub is being built was torn down in 2009 and 2010. Johnson says, “The site and all its outbuildings were known as the Paxson Building Site. The site is approximately 19,500 square feet in size; and contained one 6,506 square foot two-story multi-use structure built in several phases between 1918 and the 1950s; one single family residence approximately 700 square feet in size likely built in the 1950s; and one garage/shed approximately 600 square feet in size likely built in the 1940s or 1950s. The entire site had been abandoned for over 20 years and was very unsightly and run-down. In the past it had been used as many things including a car dealership, restaurant, gas station, teen center, and auto mechanic shop.”
Johnson emphasized, “This clean-up project was vital as the building sat right on the main highway through town and just to the east of Kit Carson’s Main Street. This building had been vacant for decades and was decrepit.”
KCRD received a DOLA Rural Economic Development Initiative grant (REDI grant) last August for just under $210,000. The maximum grant amount at the time was $150,000, but Johnson said they liked the project so much they decided to provide the extra money that was needed. Johnson then applied for a matching grant from the Boettcher Foundation. The Town of Kit Carson has provided matching dirt and machinery work and local foundations including the Flying Diamond Ranch Foundation and the Collins-Johnson Family Foundation provided some matching funds to help complete the project.
The original set of buildings were torn down by using an EPA grant. That cleanup cost $200,000 to tear down all the old buildings in 2010.
Little by little, old building by old building, Amy Johnson and the KCRD are making some significant improvements in the little town of Kit Carson. The work they are doing is ground-breaking, literally, but also metaphorically as they have found a way to overcome the barriers that stops most small towns in making any significant gains on their own blight issues.
Johnson says, “Since the pandemic, the money is out there. It’s just a matter of doing the hard work and talking to a lot of people to find it.”